Golda’s Balcony

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

There’s not a long list of great actors who, through their indelible bravura depiction of a great historical figure in a solo performance, warrant substituting the word “is” for “as,” in billing like “So-and-So Is  Famous Person.” On audiences’ mental marquees, the actor and the role become one, such that people come to know and identify the notable through the portrayal. Think Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain. Tovah Feldshuh’s Golda Meir is now another.

Feldshuh began performing William Gibson’s one-woman play Golda’s Balcony more than ten years ago, first off-Broadway, then on Broadway, then on on-going tour. She embodies Meir’s passions, principles, and excruciating moral quandaries in depth and detail. She knows every nook and cranny of the part, the inflection of every line like the palm of her hand. She takes us into the pit of Meir’s gut-wrenching ambivalence over making war to make peace. Playwright Gibson did the historical homework but Feldshuh makes it live and breathe—with such verve and virtuosity that the production now on view at Theater J is an acting tour de force, an unforgettable melding of personage and performer.

Enhancing Feldshuh’s superb solo is stagecraft that serves the riveting storytelling: Alex Hawthorn’s fine sound design episodically shocks with sounds of war; Jeff Croiter’s lighting sharpens focus on emotional moments; projections by Batwin and Robin Productions clearly visualize historical allusions; original Broadway director Scott Schwartz’s rhythmic structure and movements make even slight gestures seem momentous. During several powerful high points Feldshuh becomes Meir as orator. Lights spotlight her, the sound reverbs; and Feldshuh’s performance vividly reifies Meir’s reputation as charismatic .

Gibson titled the play after what he called

the two balconies in Golda’s life. The first was outside a Tel Aviv apartment from which she could see the Mediterranean and the ships arriving every day with refugee Jews by the thousands coming to the new state of Israel. This view was the fruits, the welcome fruits, of state power.

The second balcony was Golda’s observation post into the workings at Dimona [Israel’s secret nuclear research center, where warheads were made that Meir could have deployed but didn’t]. This view was “into hell.”

Golda’s Balcony was added to Theater J’s season during controversy stirred by its announcement that it would produce The Admission (a work I greatly admired). The two plays seen side by side are  fascinating in their generational differences and contrasting political perspectives on Israel and ethics, or what Theater J calls different “narratives of nation building.” In its juxtaposing these two works, Theater J’s risk-taking enrichment of the DC theater scene can be seen as more illuminating and essential than ever.

Gibson’s script for Golda’s Balcony presents juxtapositions of another sort. As written it is a dizzying blizzard of free-associational switching. It jump-cuts constantly—from Meir’s precocious youth to her preeminence, from her adolescent falling in love with Morris, the man she married, to her crisis-management after Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur; now this, now that; now then, now now. Moreover the play is peopled with dozens of characters—Meir’s mother, her cabinet members, Henry Kissinger, refugees, the list goes on—and it requires the actor to shift persona and impersonation at lightning pace. Upon witnessing Feldshuh’s mastery of each and every such head-spinning transformation, something like awe sets in—and the wonderment never ceases.

How can one person, one actor, hold in mind so many other voices, make real so many different people, channel such diverse lives, all with instant-to-instant conviction and presence? How does Tovah Feldshuh do it? How in the world does any actor?

In the multiplicity of juxtapositions embodied so skillfully by Feldshuh is an eloquent testament to the promise implicit in Theater J’s programming embrace of discordant viewpoints. That embrace is among the things that theater does best: help us imagine and behold diverse lives on the same stage at the same time with individuality and integrity. As such another view from Golda’s Balcony is the important place of theater and metaphor in the process toward peace in the Middle East.