Letter From New York: A View from the Balcony
To prepare for a performance, some actors rely on vocal warm-ups, movement exercises, or simple, quiet meditation. Tovah Feldshuh takes another approach.
“I bathe myself in blood,” says the star and only cast member of Golda’s Balcony, which this month becomes the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history.
Nine times a week at the Helen Hayes Theatre, Feldshuh embodies - literally, with body suit, prosthetic nose, and gray wig - the fourth and only female prime minister of Israel. And for an hour before the curtain goes up, the television monitor in her dressing room discharges a seemingly endless cycle of violence: A CNN report on terrorism in Israel. A documentary on children in Gaza. A news flash on bombings and beheadings in Iraq.
“The most difficult thing to do in a long run is not to become inured, not to become cut off from the power in the images that are assailing you,” says Feldshuh, who also scotch-tapes the obituaries of slain American soldiers to her mirror, alongside the dozens of photos of the legendary leader she portrays. “Golda Meir is a woman who didn’t want to lose her children. She asked to be awoken night or day if there was a casualty.”
Written by Tony Award-winner William Gibson, the 90-minute play weaves together two narratives - the personal history of Meir (which is in many ways the 20th-century history of the Jewish people), and the story of her and perhaps the Jewish State’s greatest crisis, the surprise attack launched by Egypt and Syria 31 years ago on Yom Kippur. It’s a moment in Israel’s history that has gone largely unexamined in a world pre-occupied (oy) with the implications of a six-day war, six years before. Only recently is the event Feldshuh calls “one of the closest shaves we’ve had with annihilation” receiving more attention in articles and books, including Abraham Rabinovich’s exhaustive new tome, The Yom Kippur War (Shocken Books, 2004).
The theme of Golda’s Balcony is indeed annihilation - of the Jewish State and perhaps the entire world. The central tension involves Meir’s torturous contemplation of whether or not to unleash Israel’s still-unacknowledged nuclear arsenal and likely precipitate the final World War (”Golda’s Balcony” is a reference to her observation post overlooking the underground reactor at Dimona).
While no record exists of the pivotal decision depicted (the play is based on conversations Gibson had with Meir in 1977), it is widely agreed that this Jewish grandmother had the matzo balls to consider it. “Her uncompromising mindset left little room for exploring the chances of peace, however slim, with the Arabs,” Rabinovich writes.
“And I don’t blame her one bit,” Feldshuh insists. “Her earliest memories were hiding under a staircase in Kiev, while people tried to kill her because she was a Jew. I don’t have that - my first memory is being on a horse that my father bought me. It’s a little bit different, and I’m so glad that Gibson, an Irish-American, wrote her experience into his play. The most important thing this show does is give people who are not rooting for Israel a reason to understand why the Jewish people were given this patch of land through a world-forum vote.”
As Feldshuh prepares for record-setting performance number 392, she admits that she is “exhausted.” Including the show’s six-month off-Broadway run, she has played the role more than 500 times, and has never missed a day. The actress, who debuted on Broadway at age 23 in the musical version of Yentl and is known for quintessential Jewish-mother turns in films like A Walk on the Moon and Kissing Jessica Stein, was initially reluctant to take the part. “I was not interested in playing another Jewish mother,” she was quoted as saying. “Instead of the mother of children, I’m the mother of a nation.”
But now, Feldshuh, whose research has taken her from Israel to Meir’s childhood home of Milwaukee, considers this “the greatest role of my career.” She has even scripted her own performance piece about the process, entitled “The Journey to Golda’s Balcony,” which she will debut in Philadelphia.
In New York, Feldshuh will continue to fill her role through the show’s closing in January before reprising it briefly in Los Angeles next spring. Golda’s Balcony is expected to begin a national tour next fall, but Feldshuh will not be part of it. “If people want to see me, they’d better come to Broadway now,” she says. “I would love to have them.”
Her ardor is obvious at the end of every performance. As the standing ovation slowly ebbs, Feldshuh steps forward and raises her hands. “Just a couple of announcements,” she promises. “I know, it’s like shul.” She thanks the production staff, promotes the matinee, and then, smiling broadly, she bathes her audience in hope.
“I tell this to my children,” she says, speaking as a Jewish mother and not an actress playing one. “If we can see the Berlin Wall come down, apartheid end in South Africa, and communism collapse in Russia, then in our lifetimes, through our good word, our good will, and our good deeds - our mitzvot - we can bring peace to the Middle East.”