BWW Reviews: Theater J's GOLDA'S BALCONY Explores Idealism with the Nuclear Option
When most regional theaters decide to revive a play, it's a fair assumption that their revival will bear some similarity to the original Broadway production. For Theater J to not only stage Golda's Balcony but to have its original star, Tovah Feldshuh, revive her performance as Golda Meir is a real coup d'theater! Even more astounding is that William Gibson's play only seems to have matured in the ten years since it first opened in New York City. With continued violence in the Middle East and the possibility of another nuclear state in the region, the questions explored by Meir of what happens when idealism meets power continues to have a piercing relevance in Theater J's tremendous production of Golda's Balcony.
It's 1978 and sitting alone at a table in a faded purple bathrobe, smoking her customary cigarette, is former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. She transports us back to the morning of Yom Kippur 1973 when she was awoken at 4 a.m. with the news that a coalition of Arab States had attacked Israel. Facing defeat, and with American military support failing to materialize, Meir contemplates the use of nuclear weapons to save the country and people she's given her life for.
The title Golda's Balcony is based off a nickname given to a room in Israel's Dimona Nuclear Facility where Meir oversaw the building of the country's nuclear program. Meir was there so often that workers named it "Golda's Balcony." She called it, "A view into hell."
Gibson's script is superb in how it intertwines Meir's story with that of the modern state of Israel and history of conflict in the region. There is no fourth-wall with this play, we are Meir's guests and as such, she has no problem bringing us into her confidence. She makes no secret that Israel was her idealistic dream of a Jewish state. Despite such a heavy topic, Gibson's script is rife with Meir's signature humor and perfectly balances it with the gravitas of the Yom Kippur War and decision at hand.
"How does a housewife choose between generals," Meir asks the audience after her first wartime cabinet meeting.
When Golda's Balcony turns serious, Gibson's script does something perceptive - he has Meir return to telling her story and not that of the Yom Kippur War. How does a Ukrainian-born Jew, raised in Milwaukee and who immigrated to Palestine in 1921, become prime minister? What is Israel's significance to her and can peace ever be accomplished? It's as if Golda's Balcony has become Meir's own reconciliation for her consideration of using nuclear weapons to save Israel.
Feldshuh, who was Tony-nominated for the role, is spectacular as Meir bringing her alive with a breathtaking and exhilarating performance. After ten years, it's clear that Feldshuh is still as enthralled with the role as she was when Golda's Balcony first opened at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre. She never once gives the appearance of "phoning it in," which can be a risk with any performer who inhabits a role for a long period of time. With Feldshuh, it's quite the opposite.
We see Meir throughout various moments of her life, experiencing the struggles she endeared en route to the premiership. Feldshuh's emotional range is something to behold. During a scene early in the show, Meir learns that a soldier, whom she knew as a child, had been killed. We see her face go from a nostalgic smile to a look of sheer horror and finally resolve after realizing the reality of war. Physically, her every movement conveys the internal struggle she felt wrestling with the aspects of her life: mother, wife, activist, fundraiser, diplomat, politician and grandmother.
Perhaps at no moment is this as great as when she asks, "What happens when idealism becomes power?" Suddenly all those conflicts seem to take on a new dimension in the shadow of a potential mushroom cloud.
Wig Designer Paul Huntley and Costume Consultant Jess Goldstein have done a marvelous job transforming Feldshuh into Israel's fourth prime minister. Those who know Feldshuh will be shocked at her remarkable resemblance to Meir. Her costume features a false nose and wool strings woven underneath heavy support hose to convey Meir's inflamed phlebitis-ridden legs. A steely, black-charcoal colored wig gives Feldshuh Meir's signature hairstyle. Completing the ensemble is Meir's ever present cigarette. Those theatergoers with sensitivity to cigarette smoke would be advised to sit away from the stage as Feldshuh fully embraces Meir's chain-smoking habit.
Original Broadway Director and Production Consultant Scott Schwartz has Feldshuh use the entire stage, despite the only real set piece being a table with a telephone and pad folio located mid-stage. By having Feldshuh roam the stage, Schwartz's direction wonderfully complements Gibson's script which chronicles Meir's travels throughout her career in the Israeli government. Linda Batwin and Robin Silvestri's projections further enhance Gibson's script by displaying photos of various moments and leaders that were instrumental in Meir's life.
Those who place a premium on historical accuracy may want to skip Golda's Balcony, as the magnitude of Israel's nuclear capabilities is not fully known. Nor has the Dimona Nuclear Facility's existence ever been confirmed. However, if you're willing to accept the premise set forth in Golda's Balcony, then you'll find a story that is as perfect for foreign-buff policy buffs and politicos as it is for theatergoers who enjoy a good drama.
Graphic: Tovah Feldshuh in Golda's Balcony at Theater J. Credit: Aaron Epstein