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 enjoyed a more perfect match of actress and material than he does in Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir. The Drama Desk winning, often 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 youth 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.
Golda Meir is certainly deserving of admiration, yet Golda's Balcony suffers from a stage version of the perennial problem with autobiography -- namely, the unreliability of the narrator. Meir's amazing path from her girlhood in Kiev to her 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 not wholly dramatic.
Meir's conflicts with her cabinet rarely manifest the drama of real political decision-making. This problem is exacerbated by Gibson's choice to have the entire tale told by 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, Feldshuh's work is so good that it hints at the more profound play that might have been. As it is, the script navigates difficult tonal shifts with aplomb, from Meir's homespun humor and maternal qualities to the lioness-like 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.
As the show goes on, we begin to notice that Anna Louizos's set -- atmospherically evocative but inexplicably cavelike -- doesn't add much to the play; in fact, it's 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 be the most tense moment of the play. But virtually unadulterated praise belongs to Feldshuh as she navigates hairpin transitions from present-tense political crises to flashbacks of family life without missing a step. One has to wonder if 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.