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Tovah Feldshuh in Golda’s Balcony
(Photo © Aaron Epstein)
Tovah Feldshuh is a miracle worker in William Gibson's newest piece, Golda's Balcony, a bioplay about the life of Golda Meir. Gibson famously wrote The Miracle Worker which premiered on Broadway in 1959 starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, yet he has likely never had a more perfect match of actress and material than he does in Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir. The Drama Desk winning, oft Tony-nominated actress plays the Russian-born, Milwaukee-raised mother, kibbutznik, yenta, and fierce socialist revolutionary who became Israel's first (and only) female Prime Minister with so much delicacy, familiarity, humanity, and grace that we don't feel we're witnessing a performance so much as a close relative of Golda's acting out her life.

Apparently, Feldshuh's research into the role led her to Milwaukee to view films and interview friends of the fiery Zionist whose rise from a life spent behind windows boarded against anti-Semites in Kiev is one of the 20th century's greatest personal journeys. Though full of drama and aided by remarkable production values, Golda's Balcony struggles to offer a balanced portrait of a heroic woman whose cause was not heroic to everyone and whose methods were, as most political methods are, controversial. Gibson's well-constructed and moving script is more balanced than a hagiography but is clearly meant to engender one feeling: admiration.

Meir is certainly deserving of admiration, yet Balcony suffers from a stage version of the perennial problem with autobiography -- namely, the unreliability of the narrator. Meir's amazing path from girlhood in Kiev to teen years in Wisconsin to her position as leader of the Jewish state is presented with winning modesty and humor. However, her affairs with powerful men and her rejection of her husband are not depicted objectively. Also, her attempts to reconcile her zeal for Zion with care for her kinder are palpable but not wholly dramatic.

Meir's conflicts with her cabinet rarely manifest the drama of real political decision-making. The latter problem is exacerbated by the choice to tell the whole tale through one actress -- even one as talented at Feldshuh, who distinguishes an army of characters without changing her costume or makeup, brilliantly rendered by (respectively) Jess Goldstein and John Caglione, Jr. Ironically, such good work is done by Feldshuh that it hints at the more profound play which might have been. As it is, the script presented by the Manhattan Ensemble Theater in its lovely downtown space navigates difficult tonal shifts with aplomb, from Meir's homespun humor and maternal qualities to the lioness ferocity which, had it been given opponents played by other actors, could have really shaken us in the way that the production's sound effects try to do.

As to the show's narrative framework, a series of flashbacks surround Meir's nuclear brinksmanship during the 1973 Yom Kippur War -- an event that devastated her and one that Gibson portrays in a gripping series of phone calls to Henry Kissinger in Washington. Feldshuh's versions of Ben-Gurion, Kissinger, and Dayan are so hilarious and plausible that they serve to point up her difficulty in creating as distinct a voice for her spurned husband Morris. Generally speaking, the slide projections designed by Batwin & Robin Productions are tastefully integrated into the proceedings by director Scott Schwartz, whose work with Feldshuh must have been something like guiding a fireball toward a target.

Feldshuh as Golda Meir
(Photo © Aaron Epstein)
As the evening goes on, we begin to notice that Anna Louizos's set, which is atmospherically evocative but inexplicably cavelike, doesn't add much to the play; in fact, it is a distracting backdrop for the projections, which at times move across the upstage wall. Schwartz might also have avoided having Feldshuh repeatedly circle the onstage table in what should have been the most tense moment of the show.

But virtually unadulterated praise belongs to Feldshuh as she navigates hairpin transitions from present-tense political crises to flashbacks of family life. She never missed a step at the performance I attended, not even after the show had to be stopped temporarily when a volunteer usher collapsed in the aisle. (It was later reported that the usher was fine.) The fact that this type of occurrence is more common at live theater performances than in movie houses might be attributed to the intensity that shows like this offer during their best moments; then again, it might also be attributed to the average age of the theater crowd!

With the houselights up during the unexpected pause, one had a chance to wonder if the younger attendees are familiar with the Golda Meir who gave voice to such blinkered perspectives as, "There are no such things as Palestinians." If Golda's Balcony strives for art over sentimentality, more room should have been made for the controversial aspects of Meir's persona.

This is especially true given Feldshuh's performance. Following the interruption of the show, the actress brought us back to the play with an extraordinary theatrical moment -- one that fused life and art in a way that we rarely see. After coming down from the stage to check on the usher, Feldshuh said to the crowd in Meir's accent: "If we can't help a human being, what are we?" Applause erupted, and then the show began again.

Tovah Feldshuh should be nominated for every existing theater award for this performance, but the play itself probably doesn't have the scope to reach Broadway. So seek it out now for its relevance to our excruciating times and for the humanity of Feldshuh's characterization.

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