Sometimes when she talks, a cigarette dangles from the right side of her mouth, the tip bobbing up and down — à la George C. Scott — with each word. At other times she leans both hands on a table and barks orders that will change, or take, countless lives. Some of the most poignant times, in Golda’s Balcony, come when the fourth prime minister of Israel hits an emotional wall her words can’t penetrate.
She pulls back, retreating from events no one should have to face. Music verging on schmaltz, as if for a Hollywoodized bio, often accompanies her upswings — until she orders it stopped, with the same force with which she makes major decisions. As always, William Gibson’s interlaced script refuses to flatter the portrait of a woman as tough as she was idealistic. And since her estranged husband, Morris Meyerson, loved music, it banishes painful thoughts of him as well.
David Ben-Gurion called Golda Meir “the best man in the government.” Born Golda Mabovitch in Kiev in 1898, she grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and helped found the state of Israel in 1948. She became prime minister in 1969. Although she fought for peace initiatives, during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when 32,000 Egyptian soldiers and 850 tanks crossed the Suez Canal onto the Sinai Peninsula, she stood at ground zero for the Apocalypse.
The play begins near her end in 1978. She’s “run out of stories,” she says, slouched over and hacking as she lights up another smoke. She takes an unvarnished look back on her amazing life, from the one that people expected her to live — her domain a kitchen in Wisconsin — to world leader.
That’s the introduction. The framing event happens in 1973. Egypt and Syria are invading Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The surprise attack catches Israel off guard. Meir paces around a desk, receiving negative reports and waiting for a phone call from Washington, D.C. Henry Kissinger may or may not pledge support and is taking his sweet time with the decision. If he doesn’t, Meir has the means to start World War III: “Temple Weapons,” armed nuclear warheads loaded on airplanes. Like JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Meir knows that they would have a domino effect. A key question the play raises is how could Meir — who devoted her life to survival and peace — reach the point where global extermination was possible?
The script splits her down the middle. She has two balconies: one in Tel Aviv overlooking the Mediterranean, wafted by warm breezes; the other, named for her by the workers, is a platform at Dimona, Israel’s nuclear research center in the bleak Negev Desert, where she watched the progress of the weapons. Gibson hits his theme, about creation versus destruction, so hard it threatens to turn his portrait into a thesis play. And if people miss his point, he has Meir ask, “What happens when idealism becomes power?”
The critic Walter Kerr wrote that, in playwriting, “It is better to make a person than to make a point.” Although the script wants to leave you with its burning question, Tovah Feldshuh subsumes issues in her masterful performance.
Feldshuh breathes Meir. Padded, wearing a steel gray wig, her nose and forehead extended, her legs wrapped, it’s near impossible to see Feldshuh, the person, through her makeup (and completely impossible to see the young Feldshuh, who played Juliet 30 years ago at the Old Globe). What she does with her costume’s a marvel in itself. She wears a gray suit coat and dress and a patterned blouse. A small alteration, like unbuttoning the top button, adds to or strips decades from the character (and even changes the weather). If each period of Meir’s life were a note, Feldshuh leaps from one to the other like a jazz improviser. She does the same with the fickle moods of scenes: she reflects, bemoans, explodes with breathtaking speed.
She plays all the characters (her take on Kissinger’s a hoot) and uses minimal props. Behind her, a screen projects videos. These do and do not work. The show’s overall style is humble, making the most from the least. Portraits of various historical figures help without intruding. But when cartoony jets fly at the audience in a 3-D effect, the stage threatens to become that movie the script’s been trying to avoid.
The late Craig Noel valued “simple” acting (i.e., no “acting” at all). Noel would have cherished this performance. In fact, Feldshuh does such clean, splendid work, it’s tempting to give her the Technique Test: pull yourself out of the story and watch how she crafts her portrayal. But she’s so in the moment, so fully now, she yanks you right back in. You forget technique and watch, to my mind, one of the two finest solo performances — along with Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own Wife — San Diego has seen in decades.
Golda’s Balcony by William Gibson
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Scott Schwartz; cast: Tovah Feldshuh; scenic design, Anna Louizos; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, Mark Bennett
Playing through May 30; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.