by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"Golda's Balcony" The Story of Golda Meir
by William Gibson
The Helen Hayes Theater, 241 West 44th Street opened October 15, 2003
Reviewed November 5, 2003 by Margaret Croyden

Let me say right off the bat that "Golda's Balcony," written by William Gibson is a courageous undertaking. One, because it is a one-woman show staring the accomplished actress Tovah Feldshuh who not only has to portray the famous Golda Meir, the former Prime Minister of Israel, (itself a formidable task) but has to enact the voices of the many people who touched Mrs. Meir's life. Two, the play is bound to create controversy (stories about Israel always do) because of Israel's role in the world, and the indomitable Golda Meir (known to the world as Golda) whose tenure during the Yom Kippur War was a crucial moment for Israel.

I was particularly interested in this play because I had interviewed Mrs. Meir for the "New York Times" when the first Golda play, also written by William Gibson, was presented on Broadway in the early 80's with Anne Bancroft. To write the story I accompanied Bancroft to Israel. And there I met Golda, her family, and her entourage. Bancroft was in Israel (with Mrs Gibson, the playwright's wife) to meet with the Prime Minister and to become acquainted with her personality, her life, and to bone up on the history of Israel, and the Prime Minister's role in the founding of the country.

For me, meeting the famous Golda was a bit of a surprise. I had envisioned Mrs. Meir as a Jewish grandmother (like my own), but I encountered something else: a tough-minded, commanding presence who admirably represented the pioneer spirit of the Zionists in the early days of Israel's independence. True to her beliefs, she lived a pioneer's life without any trimmings. The Israeli Prime Minister's quarters was a three-room, little house with a garden in the backyard; her kibbutz, where we spent an afternoon, was also spare: two small rooms, one had a bed and a telephone and no adornments. Golda did not surround herself with glamour or convenience; she wore no makeup, dressed like a an ordinary housewife about to go shopping at the local grocery store, and reminded me (sometimes) of all the Jewish women in my family. But she was head of the state and far removed from my family, or the neighborhood Jews I knew in Brooklyn. It was obvious from the start that she didn't like reporters and was tough with them; she was a tough bird. Charm and affability were not her strong points. However, she was gentle with her children and grandchildren. But it was clear to everyone that she was under enormous pressure and had an intense and strong-willed personality that could not be tampered with. Of course she couldn't become Prime Minister of Israel by being any different.

So Tovah Feldshuh had a hard job depicting the different aspects of Golda. Disguised with heavy makeup, putty nose, jowls, wig, and padded body including her legs (Golda had phlebitis and one leg was heavier than the other), she captured the essential look of Golda, but not her voice. Instead she assumed some kind of mid-western intonation which, to my ears, sounded implausible. But it was a theatrical coup: she enacted the voices of an entire cast of characters. One minute she was Golda in conversation with her staff and colleagues, and the next minute she was David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Henry Kissinger, and various historical figures--a hard job acting two people almost simultaneously. In the course of these conversations, many on the telephone, we learn of the difficulties the seventy-five year old Golda faced running the Yom Kippur war, a war that the Israelis came close to losing. We also learned the role the Americans played, particularly Henry Kissinger, who as Secretary of State under Richard Nixon, was instrumental both in delaying the promised armaments and releasing them at the zero hour. Rumor had it that Kissinger wanted to save the face of the Egyptians by delaying the arms, so that the Israelis could not take out Cairo.

One of the questionable details in the play, however, is the revelation that Golda was prepared to use the bomb. It does no good to tell us that Golda's "balcony," besides having good telephone connections, had nuclear weapons which she was contemplating using. This kind of information, true or not, was gratuitous. Some things are better left unsaid.

To get back to Feldshuh. In jumping from character to character quickly and adroitly, we lost, however, the emotional aspect of the main character. It became kind of a race to see how the actress gets the voice of one, and then another, and thus we were busy watching her and her effective technique. Frankly, it called too much attention to the actress herself. She sort of telegraphed what was happening rather than actually dramatizing the situation (not her fault really; the play was written that way) so that the action was all verbal and uninvolving. Still audiences did appreciate Tovah Feldshuh and judging by the standing ovation she received the night I saw the play, people were more than satisfied--they were profoundly moved. And that's what's important.

Still "Golda's Balcony" is more a history lesson that a theatrical piece. But for those who need the information about Golda and her remarkable courage and fortitude in running, at her age, the 1973 Yom Kippur war, which was almost lost, this evening is an education, and needs to be supported.[Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's latest book, "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000," will be published in the spring by Farrar Straus and Giroux.

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