Although cancer has already begun to tear down the bodily defenses of Israel’s prime minister Golda Meier prior to the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, she is entrenched in the war room. She continues to chain smoke, refuses to get more than a few hours sleep each night, relentlessly issues orders to her generals, and makes numerous phone calls to U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In her hands is the fate of the nation. But more importantly, Meier must decide whether or not to deploy against Egypt and Syria the arsenal of nuclear weapons secretly developed in a bunker in Dimona.
The latter, of course, is a speculation that has never been substantiated. But it nevertheless provides the most controversial and tense situation in "Golda’s Balcony," a riveting and provocative new one-woman play by 89-year-old William Gibson ("The Miracle Worker"). This is Gibson’s completely revised and reconsidered version of "Golda," a play produced on Broadway in 1974 that starred Anne Bancroft.
The title refers to two balconies: one in Tel Aviv with a view of the sea and its arriving refugees; the other overlooks Israel’s underground nuclear reactor. As she did in the play’s Off-Broadway run at the Manhattan Theater Ensemble, Tovah Feldshuh portrays Meier not only as a woman known for her zealous Zionist views but also for her uncompromising chutzpah.
I saw Feldshuh in the role Off-Broadway, and her performance on Broadway seems to me even more embracing and expansive. And so is the 90-minute play, under Scott Schwartz’s direction, with more visual projections (of places and battle sites outside the war room) and aural enhancements (the sounds of exploding bombs). The impressive war room setting by designer Anna Louizos is protected by a massive stone wall that could be seen to represent both the physical fortress as well as Meier’s impregnable faith in the destiny of Israel.
Although the Yom Kippur war bookends the play, the main portion takes place in Meier’s mind. Frustrated and tormented by her daunting, almost "Catch-22" dilemma, she reflects on her life from her early pogrom-haunted childhood in Russia, to the family home in Milwaukee, and migration with her husband to a kibbutz in Palestine in 1921.
Gibson’s text is dedicated to creating Meier both as a soul-searching, yet purposeful politician, and as a tender wife and mother, although not above a admitting to few sexual dalliances. Besides being Meier, Feldshuh makes easy, often amusing, transitions into other characters, including accents and vocal timbre. Among them are Morris Myserson, the sensitive artistic Lithuanian suitor who proposes marriage to Golda Mabovitz in Milwaukee and goes with her to Palestine; King Abdullah of Jordan, the monarch who offers annexation and protection to Israel; Moshe Dayan, who tests Meir’s patience with his too-cautious preparations; foreign affairs expert Simcha Dinitz; Lou Kaddar, Meier’s personal attache.
But it is Meier’s fearless manipulation of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that is a particular joy. Ultimately, looking out from "Golda’s Balcony," you will have no doubt about what it takes to assume the role of a hawk when you have the soul of a dove. Three stars.
Golda’s Balcony, Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44 Street, New York. $46 to $76. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200 .
The key: Four stars, don’t miss; Three stars, You won’t feel cheated; Two stars, Maybe you should have stayed home; One star, Don’t blame us.