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Tovah Feldshuh stars as Golda Meir

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   April 11, 2003 at 7:00 AM
NEW YORK, April 11 (UPI) -- Versatile actress Tovah Feldshuh has brought Talullah Bankhead, Sophie Tucker, Katharine Hepburn, Sarah Bernhardt and three queens of Henry VIII to the stage, and now she has assumed the personality of Golda Meir in a one-woman play that illuminates the early years of the State of Israel.

Feldshuh is giving an inspired performance that brings Golda to life, both as a vulnerable woman and an indomitable statesman, in "Golda's Balcony" written by 88-year-old Tony Award-winning playwright William Gibson. He is best remembered for "The Miracle Worker," a play about another indomitable woman, Helen Keller.

Gibson was on hand for the opening night of the Off-Broadway production of the play presented by the Manhattan Ensemble Theater to share with Feldshuh the plaudits of an enthusiastic audience. The timing of the premiere couldn't have been better with the nation focused on unfolding events in the Middle East, where Meir was a maker of history in her own time, coming out of retirement at age 70 to become Israel's fourth prime minister.

Actually, "Golda's Balcony" is a rewrite of Gibson's 1977 Broadway flop, "Golda," starring Anne Bancroft. The one-woman version is a stronger work by reason of Feldshuh's stunning performance without the distraction of a large cast and Scott Schwartz's resourceful direction and inspired use of video projections of actual historical events and the personalities taking part in them.

Gibson told UPI that "Golda's Balcony" includes new material given him by Meir in conversation during eight months spent with her before her death in 1978. This includes the revelation that she as prime minister of Israel considered but decided against using the country's stockpile of nuclear weapons during the Yom Kippur War with Arab neighbors in 1973.

Feldshuh is transformed into an amazing likeness of a 50-ish Meir by the art of makeup wizard John Caglione Jr. who received a 1990 Academy Award for his work in "Dick Tracy." Her nose has been broadened but looks more natural than Nicole Kidman's Virginia Wolfe nose in the current film "The Hours," and there is some body padding extending as far as stockings that age her legs. A stringy wig completes the impersonation.

But the actress is on her own in catching Meir's persona as reflected in body language and habitual gestures, including those associated with chain-smoking. Feldshuh's voice is pitched to Meir's vocal range but is never masculine in timbre, although Meir was often the only female voice in all-male counsels. Her power of personality counted for more than out-shouting the opposition or voicing her anger vociferously.

Feldshuh is particularly engaging when Meir's thoughts turn to her loving family, especially her mild-mannered husband, Morris Myerson, who emigrated with her from Milwaukee to Palestine but never felt at home there. He was always there for her, however, when the Zionist movement demanded her time and attention, and Meir – a onetime schoolteacher -- envied his "rich inner life, richer than mine for all my activity and drive."

Meir has strong guilt feelings verging on paranoia about the time her successive jobs with the Histadrut and its Women's Labor Council and the Jewish Agency kept her away from home, and she is always looking for signs that her children, Menachem and Sarah, really love her and are proud of her achievements. The question of whether or not she was a success as a mother haunted her until her dying day.

This is the portrait of a complex woman living in complex times alongside such towering figures as David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, and Shimon Peres. But none stood taller than she, and Feldshuh gives us a good idea why Meir is considered the mother of her country by tracing her experiences from the anti-Jewish pogroms in her native Russia to parliamentary debate in the Israeli Knesset.

"She was one to break crises, not to be broken by them," Peres wrote in a recent New York Times article. "At a period when Israel was caught unaware by a surprise military assault, she symbolized everything that was the opposite of despair: exuding inner peace, contagious faith, confidence that no matter how critical the crisis, it could be overcome."

Never mind that she wore dowdy, unfashionable suits and dresses and was never happier than when she could relax in an old wool bathrobe, this was a woman with more than fashion or preparation of her family's supper on her mind, not unlike her contemporary, Eleanor Roosevelt. If you admire Meir or want to make her acquaintance, "Golda's Balcony" should be on your must-see list.

Anna Louizos' bunker-like set is turned into a number of venues by the video projections and Howell Binkley's transforming lighting. Jess Goldstein has designed Meir's limited wardrobe with a sure touch, and Mark Bennett has provided original music that evokes associations with time and place so important to this extraordinary theatrical production.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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