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May 12, 2006

Gorgeous Golda Again

Roy Meachum

In person, Golda Meir was anything but gorgeous, not to the eye. By the time she marched onto the world stage, in her sixties, the late Israeli prime minister possessed legs like tree-trunks, a body that sagged and a face that counted its wrinkles until tiring at the job.

Did I mention her nose? Better not to ask.

Best of all; go to Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre where Valerie Harper plunges most fiber of her being into portraying the uhr-mother of her nation and most of the world's Jews. No simple matter, if only because the character's outward looks could not differ more from the actress's.

Ms. Harper's legs had to be made to appear twice their normal, slim size; the wig secured on her usually well-coifed tresses would do better as part of a Hollywood costume. It was very close to the real one. But that's precisely the point.

Where playwright William Gibson takes us, through Ms. Harper's solid performance, is into a world totally dominated by men. Aside from great beauty, the few women at the highest level had been born into royalty.

And Golda Meir was, as I've said, neither gorgeous nor certainly royal; she was born to a poor carpenter's wife in Kiev, Russia, now the capital of Ukraine. The family migrated and wound up in Milwaukee, which proved a way station en route to Palestine, then a British colony.

She scarcely unpacked her clothes before working as hard as she could to create Israel, and that was in the very early 1920s, when America allowed women, with rare exceptions, to become little more than child-minding teachers and care-giving nurses.

Ms. Meir's political activism came at a price. Even in the society that encouraged females to be what they could be, her forthright honesty cost her marriage; she ended her life living alone, comforted by her two children. But such a life!

After various organizing jobs, including the struggling Labor Party, she was rewarded by being selected foreign minister, and that came about because of great success at getting nations to accept the idea of a Jewish state, even before Israel came into existence.

Her 15 years in the United States didn't hurt, of course. As Mr. Gibson's play relates: on the eve of what Israel calls its war of independence, she managed to bring back $50 million when David Ben-Gurion was despondent over the lack of weapons to defend Jewish homes.

Over 20 years later the former Milwaukee school teacher was invited to assume the post once occupied by Mr. Ben-Gurion, or "BG" as Ms. Harper calls him in her one-woman show.

The 1973 combined Egyptian-Syrian invasion happened on her watch as prime minister. The nation survived because of Richard Nixon's willingness to strip American forces of the needed tanks and fighter jets.

For my part, I sat in the Hippodrome Tuesday totally fascinated by hearing from the stage how this country was made vulnerable to save Israel. Nothing new to me, but I never expected the fact would be so publicly announced.

The same can be said about Israel's nuclear facility in the Negev Desert. The greatest disclosure, however, was Charles de Gaulle's contribution. The French president essentially brought Israel into the nuclear age.

Mr. Gibson's play structures itself about the war called by various names: Yom Kippur by the Jews, Ramadan by Muslims and since it started in the month that presents autumn beauties, the October War for those taking no side.

Because Israel came very close to collapsing under Anwar Sadat's surprise attack, she felt her life ended in disgrace. Nobody else did, including Mr. Sadat, who was photographed beaming beside her, when he made the famous trip to Jerusalem. The next year she died.

For the next pair of weekends and the playing days between, Valerie Harper brings Golda Meir alive and on the stage of nearby Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre.

What a blessing, or mitzvah - as the lady herself could have said.

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