Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2009
"Three thousand years ago Joshua ‘fit the battle of Jericho,’ and ever since Jews, Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Christians, Muslims have been killing each other over the limited real estate. Different bloodstreams with different memories, and I see little reason to think it will end this year. The current struggle is the overt material of Golda’s Balcony, but when Golda quotes Ben-Gurion on ‘the redemption of the human race,” she is voicing the idealism of every major cause in history – which itself has been called a record of ‘what should not have happened.’ How can so many good intentions spill so much blood? This is the question of this monologue."
– William Gibson
CLICK HERE for production photos.
Since the last time I reviewed the world-premiere of Golda's Balcony in 2002 it has been to Broadway and Hollywood before finding its way back home to Shakespeare & Company. While I am sure Tovah Feldshuh (on stage) and Valerie Harper (on film) were just dandy in this brilliantly written one-woman show, I don’t think I would want to see anyone but Annette Miller as Golda Meir. Yes, I know Feldshuh won awards and that the play currently holds the record for the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history, but the photos of her in the copy of the script I purchased look so heavily made-up and, well, fake.
Miller plays Golda without heavy make-up or prostheses. In other words, she acts. She enters as Annette Miller, the actress and then assumes the posture, voice and character of her Golda. I say “her Golda” because this is certainly not an impersonation of Meir and the physical resemblance between Miller and the former Israeli Prime Minister (1969-1974) is plausible but only passing.
The Theatre Guild acquired the rights to adapt Meir’s life story for the stage and hired Gibson to do it back in the 1970s. Meir, (born Golda Mabovitch in 1898, and known as Golda Myerson during her marriage from 1917-1956), died in 1978, and Gibson was able to spend time with her as well as to interview her close friends and family. The first result of that work was a multi-character play called Golda starring Anne Bancroft, which had a Broadway run not much longer than the Seven Days War back in 1977. Meir, of course, was still alive then and had creative control over what Gibson could and could not write about her.
In the new millennium, Gibson, a long-time Stockbridge resident, began collaborating with Miller and Israeli-born director Daniel Gidron at Shakespeare & Company on this one-woman version of Meir’s story, which had a very successful run here in the Berkshires and then moved to Boston where it won Miller an Eliot Norton Award. But despite that honor and many critical accolades, it was Feldshuh who was tapped to star in the New York production.
Now Miller and Gidron have teamed up again, minus Gibson who sadly passed away last November, and Golda has a new home in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre as the final installment in The Diva Series of one-woman shows. While Tina Packer is a hard act to follow and Penny Krietzer showed an amazing ability to morph from one character to another in the blink of an eye , Golda’s Balcony is a far, far better play than Shirley Valentine and even ">The Actors Rehearse the Story of Charlotte Salomon.
Seven years later I still think this is a tremendously important play. If you don’t have the time and money to see anything else this summer, see Golda’s Balcony.
The major difference between this production and the one I saw in 2002 is the venue. Shakespeare & Company has since sold the gracious Spring Lawn Mansion and the Bernstein has none of the elegance and about half of the intimacy of that space (I recommend sitting in the first four rows of the center section if you can afford it), but while Gidron and Miller made the salon work, there is no question that the solemn, bunker-like confines of the Bernstein are more closely aligned with the spaces Golda occupied than the Gilded Age glamor of Spring Lawn. The company also points out the enhanced sound and lighting equipment available in the new space. Certainly having Miller facing the majority of the audience the majority of the time is a plus because anyone with a hearing problem can tell you that being able to see the face of the speaker is invaluable to understanding what is being said.
Gibson and Gidron keep Miller on the run literally and figuratively, as do lighting designer Greg Solomon and sound designer Michael Pfeiffer. Often she is cut off mid-thought by a sound or lighting cue that moves her to a different playing area, a different story, and different time in her life.
While Gibson has Golda illuminating many aspects of her life, the central dramatic element in the play is the Yom Kippur war and the tense hours of waiting to hear whether promised military assistance will arrive from Washington. A portion of the stage is designated as the Prime Minister’s office in which that vigil took place, but there are also clear sound cues – the ticking of a clock, the roar of fighter jets overheard – that bring Golda back from more distant reveries of other times and places to the horror of the decision she had to make.
“Someone once asked me, ‘Why do you write about such strong women?’ And I said, ‘Is there any other kind?’”
– William Gibson
“I mean women live so small, stuck in the kitchen and outside the whole world is calling us to come change it.”
– William Gibson, Golda’s Balcony
Every little girl in the world should learn the story of Golda Meir. She was the first truly powerful female head of state in the 20th century, and she got to the top through an admirable combination of intelligence, skill, passion, and stubbornness. For millennia men have perceived, and women have been told, that woman’s natural instincts as mother and caregiver make her ill-suited for politics and war craft. But here it is precisely Golda’s experience bearing children that informs her decisions birthing, rearing and shaping the state of Israel.
Which brings me to the obvious point that this is a story told by a Jew and a Zionist – a woman who literally gave up her own children to see the state of Israel created. There is still a high price being paid for her accomplishments, and there are people who feel strongly about the current role Israel is playing on the world stage. President Obama addressed that matter in his speech in Cairo just last week. If you have very strong feelings on this matter – and it is a matter that has stirred up incredible passions for thousands of years – you may not want to see this play.
I understand that Gibson’s assertions about Meir’s political maneuvers during the Yom Kippur War, which I will not reveal in this review so as not to spoil the show for you, are also controversial. Presumably, he gleaned something in the conversations he had with Meir and other principle players in that drama that led him to believe that what he wrote was true or at least plausible.
Gibson has Golda say that 75 years don’t fit easily into 95 minutes, and on opening night they didn’t fit at all. The show ran nearly two hours, and that is a long time to sit without an intermission. I can’t imagine what could be cut from the play, so I would recommend inserting an intermission. The sale of beverages and snacks and other sundries (I dashed right out to the concession and bought a copy of the script!) is lucrative and people do pay attention better when their butts aren’t falling asleep.
Shakespeare & Company's production of Golda's Balcony will be performed through July 3 and on September 13 in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Kemble Street campus in Lenox, MA. The show runs an hour and fifty minutes with no intermission and is suitable for ages 14 and up.
The Bernstein is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. Performances in the evenings run at 8:30 p.m. and in the afternoons at 3:00 p.m. Tickets range from $12 to $48. For a complete listing of productions and schedules, to inquire about student, Senior, Berkshire resident and Rush Tix, or to receive a brochure, please visit the website at www.shakespeare.org or call the Box Office at (413) 637-3353. For group visits, contact Group Sales Manager Victoria Vining at (413) 637-1199 ext. 132.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009