In a way, Willy Loman led Aaron Davidman to Golda Meir.
Davidman, the artistic director of San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre, had directed a production of Death of a Salesman that, true to his theater’s name, traveled down to the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
Robert Kelley, artistic director of TheatreWorks and frequent tenant of the MVCPA stage, saw the production and ended up chatting with Davidman about working with TheatreWorks.
That’s the short version of how Davidman ended up directing Golda’s Balcony, the one-woman biographical drama by William Gibson about Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974.
Bay Area audiences first saw the play when Tovah Feldshuh performed the role in a summer 2005 production in San Francisco.
For the first local production, which previews tonight and opens Saturday in Mountain View, Davidman hired Camille Saviola, a Broadway veteran of Nine and Chicago with many film and TV credits as well.
Davidman says he was drawn to the play (which he had not seen in San Francisco) because its focus — the Yom Kippur war of 1973 — encapsulates a significant and tumultuous period of history through the story of a woman who is “skirting the edge of monumental social and political transition in the 20th century.”
Though Davidman has visited Israel many times and has been working on Israel-related projects for years, he says he hadn’t focused much on Meir and did his research before heading into rehearsals.
“I was talking with my Israeli friends and colleagues, and they say she was the single worst prime minister in the history of Israel,” Davidman says. “Some fought in the ’73 war, some lost friends, and they hold her responsible because of a lack of preparedness, hubris, all that stuff. I sort of came to the text with a point of view: Let’s see who Golda is.”
What he discovered was a “remarkably complex human being complete with faults and heroism.”
Gibson’s play, which began life on Broadway as Golda starring Anne Bancroft, and which was then revised, is not, according to Davidman, a glorification of a political figure.
“Rather, it’s a real attempt at opening a window into the internal struggles of a remarkable woman — she was a woman in a position of power at a time when that was a remarkable occurrence,” Davidman says. “You can hold her to task for her political failings, but if you dig deeper into her life journey, from Milwaukee to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I think you come away with a deep respect for someone who made an extraordinary journey. That, in turn, makes great drama.”
Unlike the Broadway and San Francisco production, Davidman’s will not make extensive use of makeup and prosthetics to re-create a facsimile of Meir.
“When people come into the theater, they know Golda’s dead,” Davidman says. “We know she’s not here but we’re going to be in the room with her anyway. That’s the duality and beauty of theater. I feel like we make an effort to present Golda as she really was — what she looked like and sounded like. But it’s really up to the actor to be in the moment, to find the authenticity. For the first few minutes, the audience says, `It’s not Golda.’ Then they buy in. The immediacy of the drama draws them, and they’re in for the ride.”
As for Davidman’s other job, heading Traveling Jewish Theatre, he says the 29-year-old company is in good shape. He says the new season is slowly coming together and will include David Greenspan’s Dead Mother; Or Shirley Not All in Vain, a co-production with San Francisco’s Thick Description, and Donald Margulies’ The Model Apartment. There will also be a tour to Toronto and Phoenix of TJT’s “2 x Malamud,” a critically acclaimed stage adaptation of two Bernard Malamud short stories.
Davidman is also working on a new solo show about American-Israeli relations, and TJT co-founder Corey Fisher is working on a play about Clifford Odets and the Group Theatre.
Visit www.atjt.com for information.
Golda’s Balcony continues through Oct. 28 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, corner of Castro and Mercy streets, Mountain View. Tickets are $20 to $56. Call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.