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Thursday, August 27, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Complex Woman -- `The Other Side Of Golda' Sheds Light On The Facets Of Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

------------------------------- THEATER PREVIEW

"The Other Side of Golda: At Home with Golda Meir" Tomorrow through Sunday at Kirkland Performance Center, 350 Kirkland Ave., Kirkland ($15 for adults, $10 for seniors and students; 425-893-9900). -------------------------------

She is a figure larger than life, a chain-smoking, no-nonsense woman who became a political giant in an arena dominated by men. It was an image of Golda Meir borne out in old newspaper photos, her somber, lined face framed by frizzy wisps of graying hair.

But beyond the stern visage, playwright / director Karen Setlowe has created a more complex portrait of Israel's former prime minister in the one-woman show, "The Other Side of Golda: At Home with Golda Meir." The play has its West Coast premiere tomorrow at the Kirkland Performance Center.

"I think that a lot of people underestimate this incredible potion Golda had," said Setlowe, 55, a native Long Islander dividing her time between Kirkland and South Carolina. "She was a marvelous cook. She could talk on most any subject. She was quite literate. . . . As hard-nosed as she was about her politics, she was a warm, loving person."

Six years in the making, "The Other Side of Golda" has been a personal quest for Setlowe, who was raised in a liberal Jewish household. The experience of caring for her ailing mother, once a vaudeville headliner and later a preschool teacher, kindled in Setlowe an awareness and appreciation for the difficult choices her mother had to make between career and family. And the loss of her last living parent, and closest connection to her Jewish history, left her searching for some link with this past.

Setlowe began sifting through archives in 1988, gleaning details about the Ukraine-born Meir from biographies, documents and old newsreels. Wherever she traveled, Setlowe sought out acquaintances of this folk hero, who was a child when her family immigrated to Milwaukee to escape the pogroms.

Setlowe marvels at her luck in reaching Meir's girlhood friend, Regina Hamburger Medzini, who immigrated with Meir to Palestine in 1921. From their correspondence, the playwright was given a rare treasure - a tape of Medzini, now in her 90s, singing the Yiddish song the two young women hummed on their long, rough journey from America to Palestine.

Set in Meir's living room 16 years after her death, the play presents a down-home portrait of an unpretentious woman in all her glory and failure. Shirley Sarlin of Liberty, S.C., who starred in the 1994 South Carolina premiere, plays an aged Meir, who despite being dead is still feisty after all these years and angered over the stalemate in the Middle East.

"She's back to put her two cents in," Setlowe says of the character. "She has always been a part of Israel's cause, and the simple matter of dying shouldn't get in the way."

Several Goldas exist within Setlowe's play, which is sponsored in part by the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. There is the mother of modern-day Israel, impassioned by Zionism, as well as the warm-hearted, sardonic grandmother who serves up fierce gefilte fish and honey cakes. She is the hard-nosed politician who carried Israel through some of its most vulnerable times, and the guilt-ridden mother wrestling with a failing marriage and the conflicting obligations of motherhood and politics.

Yet, above all, Setlowe's heroine is human.

As Setlowe puts it, crafting the play has been an incredible blessing for her, a fulfillment of a wish. But she has also fulfilled her heroine's wish as well: to be able to live through the signing of a Middle East peace accord.

"I know Golda is with us today," says Setlowe. "I defy anyone to prove to me that she's not here."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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