Actress gives tour-de-force performance in Goldas Balcony

“Survival,” growls Tovah Feldshuh’s Golda Meir in the play “Golda’s Balcony,” “is synonymous with being Jewish.”

Doggedness was certainly a hallmark of the late Israeli prime minister, and Feldshuh plays it for all its worth in “Golda’s Balcony,” a one-woman show now playing at San Francisco’s Geary Theater.

Though playwright William Gibson too often settles for pat convention and quasi-hagiography, Feldshuh’s faultless performance elevates “Golda’s Balcony” into a memorable night in the theater.

On a dimly lit set of faux Jerusalem stone, Feldshuh’s Golda paces about a desk, chain-smoking while recounting the highlights of her life. Her girlhood in Russia and Milwaukee (Feldshuh has the accent down cold), her budding Zionism and empty marriage, her years in pre-independence Palestine through the early days of the modern state of Israel.

There’s one taut scene in which Golda visits a Jewish displaced-persons camp on Cypress and puts it to the weary internees. They can permit the children to depart for the budding Jewish state or they can all languish interminably. It seems she was always staring down the most Solomonic of choices.

Most of these segments are laced with humor, some almost to the point of shtick, but it’s a good thing Feldshuh goes for the laughs early on. After some foreshadowing about Dimona (Israel’s secret nuclear weapons plant), the play settles into its central subplot: Golda’s dark nuclear-tipped night of the soul.

Early in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, with Israel taking a severe military beating and the Arab armies closing in, Golda faced a horrendous option: whether to launch a nuclear first strike. The play’s title in fact refers to two balconies, one from Golda’s modest Tel Aviv apartment when she was trying to live as an average Israeli citizen; the other, a grim lookout at the Dimona plant.

A nuclear attack would have been, says Golda, a new Masada (referring to the mountaintop band of first century Jews preferring suicide to Roman enslavement). But, she adds ominously, Israel’s atom bombs do bear the legend in Hebrew, “Never again.”

As the agonizing hours wear on, Feldshuh reenacts conversations with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz and others, deftly playing the multiple roles. Every time the on-stage phone rings with news from the front, the audience jumps along with Feldshuh.

It is not clear whether the real Golda displayed as much anguish as does Feldshuh’s or if she actually lived up to her tough “Iron Lady” reputation. But this Golda is a Jewish mamaleh at heart, heartsick over the war’s human cost and horrified at the thought of dropping a “Jewish A-bomb.”

With the crisis averted by a last-minute American military airlift, Golda announces the nukes have been removed from Israeli bombers and then falls to her arthritic knees in relief. A less skilled actor would have made melodrama of the moment, but Feldshuh, arms held up in thanks to a “hypothetical” God, presents a devastating tableau.

Though the nuclear subplot generates the most heat, the heart of the play is Golda’s sorrow over having to chose between mothering her own children or the state of Israel.

History shows that Golda would never have been named Mother of the Year, but Gibson’s play strives for context. When it comes to birthing a nation, Feldshuh’s Golda was Mother of the Century.

In the beginning of the play, Golda says she knows how to make chicken soup but at the bottom of the pot, one finds blood. Feldshuh makes palpable Golda’s guilt over those Israeli boys killed in battle, over her own neglected children. In essence, she achieves the first task of the actor: make her character real.

Hair, makeup and costuming all lend the right amount of verisimilitude. Scott Schwartz’s able direction is clean, fast-paced and uses the entire Geary Theater stage well. Gibson, now over 90, also scores points for being so intellectually vital at this stage of his life.

But “Golda’s Balcony” belongs to Feldshuh. This play became the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history for a reason, and its name is Tovah Feldshuh. She is a true master, in complete control at all times. Whether or not one leaves the theater loving Golda Meir, one cannot leave without loving the artistry of Tovah Feldshuh.

And for those who love theater, “Golda’s Balcony” is not to be missed.

“Golda’s Balcony” plays 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 13, at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F. Tickets: $18-$69. Information: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.