Review: Annette Miller Triumphs Again in GOLDA'S BALCONY

Shakespeare & Company production runs through March 10 at Emerson Paramount Center

By: Mar. 01, 2024
Review: Annette Miller Triumphs Again in GOLDA'S BALCONY
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Golda Meir – Israel’s first, and so far only, female prime minister – was seen by some as the straight-talking grandmother of the Jewish people. In “Golda’s Balcony,” however, Tony Award-winning playwright William Gibson (1914–2008) makes clear that, even with her simple hairstyle, ever-present pocketbook and sensible shoes, Meir was anything but benign.

“I’m known for making chicken soup for our soldiers,” says the self-aware Meir at the outset of Gibson’s 2002 one-act play, now at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at the Emerson Paramount Center in a Shakespeare & Company production first mounted in Lenox last summer. “Chicken soup, yes, but there is blood at the bottom of the pot.”

The house lights are still up on Patrick Brennan’s spare set when we first glimpse Meir – being played with bravura by Annette Miller, who originated the role in Shakespeare & Company’s 2002 world premiere production – stolidly making her way to take center stage, every inch the steel-fisted strongwoman.

Set in 1978, the play has the then-80-year-old looking back on her life, with particular focus on the 1973 Yom Kippur War when both Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. The term “Golda’s balcony” refers to an area from which high-ranking visitors can view the underground section of Israel’s Dimona nuclear installation. With that in mind, Gibson has the Kiev-born, Milwaukee-raised Meir threatening to launch nuclear weapons against her adversaries – and potentially initiating World War III – if then-U.S. President Richard M. Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger don’t bring America’s power to Israel’s defense.

With the current Israel–Hamas war making front-page headlines for its rising death numbers, Gibson’s writing seems prescient as he shows the toll war took on Meir, whose political engagement had deep roots.

Before becoming Israel’s fourth elected prime minister in 1969, at the age of 70, Meir, who died of lymphoma in 1978, had a long and varied life. Emigrating from Russia with her family in 1906, she fervently embraced Zionism from an early age. When she married Jewish socialist Morris Meyerson in 1917, the onetime Wisconsin school teacher made settling in Palestine a prerequisite to the union, and by 1921, the young couple had moved to a kibbutz there.

Meir soon began her rise as a formidable politician and fundraiser who would bring in $50 million from U.S. donors to purchase arms from Europe and to support the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel. Meir was referred to as the “Iron Lady” of Israeli politics, long before that moniker was applied to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The versatile Miller – a longtime Shakespeare & Company actor who won national acclaim as Gladys Green in the company’s 2019 production of “The Waverly Gallery,” and has numerous film, stage, and television credits – blends world-weary exhaustion with firebrand ferocity to bring the always strategizing stateswoman vividly to life. Not long after quietly stating “I am at the end of my stories,” Miller shifts her mood and stance to take us back to a time when Meir was feverishly fielding phone calls in an effort to settle her country’s rapidly escalating conflict with Egypt.

Original director Daniel Gidron is once again at the helm of a taut production in which Miller skillfully moves between the heavier themes – with the backing of sound supervisor Brendan F. Boyle’s sounds of planes, rapid-fire artillery, a ticking clock, and music favored by Meir’s husband – and the play’s lighter moments. In scenes depicting Meir’s memories of everyone from her mother to Kissinger, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and more, Miller evokes those characters and others with seamless shifts in her vocal modulation.

Gibson first wrote about Meir in his 1977 multi-character play “Golda,” which, even with Anne Bancroft in the title role, had only a short Broadway run. He revisited the subject 25 years later with this single-character treatment, which had its 2002 world premiere at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox with Miller in the title role. A 2003 Broadway production at New York’s Helen Hayes Theatre earned star Tovah Feldshuh a Tony Award nomination and went on to become the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history.

With Miller once again slipping into Meir’s familiar footwear, “Golda’s Balcony” continues to stand as a powerful look at a singular woman in modern history.

 

Photo caption: Annette Miller as Golda Meir in the Shakespeare & Company production of “Golda’s Balcony.” Photo by Nile Scott Studios.




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