Shalom and salam: words so similar in sound and identical in meaning. In Golda's Balcony, an imaginative telling of the life of Golda Meir, Israel's founding mother pauses to consider that peace sounds almost the same in Hebrew as in Arabic. The Jews and the Arabs, children of a common father and heirs to the world-altering idea of monotheism with its implication of oneness, are locked in a deadly family feud over a common holy city overlooking a narrow sliver of rocky land on the eastern Mediterranean shore.
It's tragic, yet in Golda's Balcony, life is a comedy twisted into a tragedy, a dialogue of humor and drama knotted together and inseparable. Director Jeremy Paul Kagan transformed William Gibson's play into a highly and effectively stylized cinematic depiction of a remarkable woman. Meir's memories surround her, literally, in the form of archival footage, vintage movies and other visuals projected behind and around the wizened figure as she looks back on events that marked her life. The narrative shifts between Meir's account of the 1973 Yom Kippur, when as Israel's prime minister she presided over a touch-and-go victory over her Arab neighbors, and her own chronicle beginning in the Jewish ghetto of Kiev and continuing through her teenage years in Milwaukee, her emigration to Palestine in the 1920s and her role in establishing the state of Israel.
Golda's Balcony is essentially a one-woman play with an unforgettable performance by Valerie Harper, but it's not a monologue. With minimal costume alterations, Harper also plays such figures in Meir's life as her mother and father, her husband, Morris, even Henry Kissinger of the gravelly low voice. The conversations between Meir and her associates, taking place within a single cinematic frame, are of the sort all of us have conducted inside our own imaginations as we remember what we once said or what we would like to have said to people we have known.
The protagonist of Golda's Balcony is tough yet sympathetic, endowed with common-sense wisdom. Harper's embodiment of Meir is reminiscent of Thelma Ritter in Rear Window and All About Eve, bemused and resourceful but infused by Zionism and thrust into the heart of history. She recalls the speech given in Milwaukee during World War I by Israel's future prime minister, David Ben-Gurion; he called the future state of Israel a Jewish homeland and a model for the redemption of humanity. "I was young. Seemed reasonable," Meir says, wryly.
Zionism was a Utopian project and Meir learned that Utopias are never perfect, meaning they can never be achieved. The effort can sometimes be worthwhile, however. After 2,000 years of persecution and, finally, Hitler's systematic campaign to eradicate the Jewish race, Israel needed to be established, even if the reality would be less than Utopian. That the land had other inhabitants and was surrounded by nations who saw the returning Jews as invaders was a conundrum Meir could never unknot.
In Golda's Balcony, Meir is depicted as strong-willed from an early age, dissatisfied with a woman's customary role in the home. She is bossy, but she adds, "For me they use a fancier word-intransigent." She stayed the course of Zionism, troubled that some deeds committed in the cause's name were wrong and knowing that there would always be doubtful links in the chain of cause and effect. One of her greatest services to the establishment of Israel in 1948 was her fund-raising expedition to the United States, netting $50 million from American Jews to purchase arms for the nascent Israeli defense force.
"I begin with the redemption of the human race and end in the munitions business," she says, shrugging sadly. Would she do it again? Sure. In an imperfect world, she seems to add, we can do no better than make the best of every bad situation.
Golda's Balcony will be screened at 7:15 p.m., Sept. 7, at the Pfister Hotel, 424 E. Wisconsin Ave. The screening is part of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation's yearlong celebration "Israel@60." The public is invited. Cost is $18 per person, and a reservation and a gift to the 2009 Annual Campaign are required. Reservations can be made online at www.milwaukeejewish.org or by calling (414) 390-5700.