Golda's Balcony by William Gibson. Directed by Scott Schwartz. Set Design by Anna Louizos. Costume Design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting Design by Howell Binkley. Sound Design and Additional Music by Mark Bennett. Projection Design by Batwin and Robin Productions. Wig Design by Paul Huntley. Golda Meir Makeup by John Caglione, Jr. Cast: Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Mier.
"I am at the end of my stories" are the first words uttered in Golda's Balcony, and they're as dramatically profound as they are rhetorically inaccurate. William Gibson's play is bursting with stories, yes, but also history, with both bound together with the type of smoldering life force that separates truly powerful drama from merely fine words on a page.
But when dealing with someone as important and controversial as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, the adequate seems simply insufficient. Therefore it's fortunate for Broadway audiences that everyone involved in moving this show from Off-Broadway's Manhattan Ensemble Theater to the Helen Hayes has demanded - and delivered - more. This is certainly no watery transfer or half-hearted attempt to make something small big enough to fill a Broadway house. This is the real deal, a production that, while not substantially different physically from the Off-Broadway one, manages to feel fuller, more imposing and more impressive on Broadway.
A few people should certainly share the credit: Anna Louizos for her set designs that depict the rubble of a difficult past abutting an unsure future; Howell Binkley for his lights that can isolate a telephone or a single emotion as separate characters; the projections by Batwin & Robin Productions that create visual aids of places and characters to aid Gibson's 90-minute narrative; or, of course, director Scott Schwartz himself, who has seen to it that everything onstage reaches both the wings and the back of the Helen Hayes mezzanine.
Most responsible for this transfer's immense success, however, is Tovah Feldshuh. Her Meir was always focused and riveting, a characterization so complete it could easily have survived without Jess Goldstein's costume, John Caglione, Jr.'s makeup, or Paul Huntley's wig (admittedly excellent external complements). But Feldshuh has now so expanded and deepened her performance, making it simultaneously larger and more intimate, that even her excellent Off-Broadway work must pale in comparison. (The only similar example of this type of transformation from recent seasons is Elaine Stritch At Liberty.) Whether portraying Meir at various points in her life, or a host of other characters who make appearances (such as Meir's husband Morris Meyerson or King Abdullah, to name but two examples), Feldshuh's work now is even more thoughtful and nuanced, her every characterization funnier and more tragic throughout.
That's wholly appropriate for the larger-than-life Meir, whose life's work establishing and then maintaining the Jewish state of Israel was often something of a mixture of comedy and tragedy, success and failure, often playing out on the global stage. Golda's Balcony focuses primarily on one incident, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, as Meir fields a never-ending stream of phone calls, crises large and small, and political posturing while pondering her most difficult decision yet: whether to utilize nuclear weapons against her Egyptian and Syrian enemies.
But while that conflict plays an important role in the play's drama, Gibson's real purpose is to chronicle his subject's personal and professional life. Make no mistake - Golda's Balcony is, overall, an affectionate portrait of Meir, depicting her as a woman who would let nothing stop her from achieving her goal. "My dream was simple," she says at one point, "make a new world." That more or less sums it up, though Gibson isn't afraid to tackle often heavily weighty subjects from poverty to failure with humor, making Golda's Balcony often as entertaining as enlightening.
Nor does he completely shy away some of the less positive aspects of Meir's personality, rendering her not only a strong and heroic leader, but someone often willing to leave her husband and children behind in pursuit of her bigger dreams. And certainly her choices relating to Israel's nuclear armament are not always presented without challenge; the play's title refers to the observation deck at Dimona where she oversaw the creation of the weapons, a view intended to stand in stark contrast with another view from another balcony of beauty and peace.
It's that constant battle of the two forces for control of Meir's life that really drives Golda's Balcony and help make it even more moving and relevant now than it was in its March premiere. The ideas of fighting for peace and figuring out how far one can and should go in struggles for life, or even simply existence, face us every day as well. And if the problems currently facing the United States are not quite the same as Israel's - Meir's description of it, as having died "a little with each war since," is at least somewhat apropos.
So is the play's central question: What happens when idealism becomes power? Golda's Balcony, like life, provides no easy answers. Instead, by virtue of Feldshuh's titanic and unflagging performance, we're given the power to examine the facets of that and the play's other questions for ourselves, so that we might some day be able to answer it effectively on our own terms as Meir did on hers.