When William Gibson’s one-woman play opens, Tovah Feldshuh’s Golda is old and sick with phlebitis, arthritis, a heart condition and cancer, but her indomitable will, the drive that enabled her to become Israel’s prime minister in 1969 and defend her country against overwhelming odds, is projected by Feldshuh with steely determination. This formidable woman is an enigmatic, intriguing heroine. The script, in trying to capture all her complexities, often lurches frenetically from one episode to the next, and this structure diminishes tension. It succeeds more as a valuable slice of history than as devastating human drama.
The original version by Gibson (“The Miracle Worker,” “Two for the Seesaw”) ran for three months on Broadway with Anne Bancroft. Dissatisfied with the result, he re-envisioned the material and centered on this question: What happens when idealism becomes power? Golda’s pursuit of freedom eventually culminated in numerous fatalities. She was tormented by the necessity of sending soldiers out to die, even for a worthy cause, and Feldshuh puts across that pain, reminding us of the price that must be paid for, as Gibson puts it, “less than perfect results.”
Feldshuh appears before us with gray hair pulled back into a bun, aging makeup and thick padding to add pounds. In a guttural, smoke-damaged voice, she vividly discusses her bitter Russian childhood, recalling her father “nailing boards across the door to keep out a pogrom.” Escaping from knife- and club-wielding mobs to Milwaukee, she became a teacher, married the gentle and politically passive Morris, moved to a kibbutz and endured poverty that led her to agonize “my whole life is bargaining over two chicken legs.”
Meir was noted for her wry, caustic wit, and her domestic recollections are related with humor. They seem like hastily incorporated asides, however, and aren’t always as crowd-pleasingly funny as intended. The story’s true power stems from such anecdotes as Golda urging an elderly Bergen-Belsen victim to remain incarcerated by the British and allow a child to enter Israel in her place. This encounter simultaneously addresses the tragedy of the Holocaust and the desperate need to rescue and nurture young people who can experience freedom in a new country and carry on their Jewish heritage.
As her marriage unraveled, Meir had affairs, frankly admitting, “I wasn’t a nun.” Motherhood also took a back seat to her activism. Occasionally, she seems more harried woman than larger-than-life leader, even as she protests, “I’m not a housewife” and objects to the picture of herself as simply “Mommile Golda, who makes chicken soup for her soldiers.” Feldshuh, however, brings urgent force to the climactic conflict.
The conclusion presents Meir coping with her most pressing decision: whether to launch nuclear weapons that her administration has secretly been creating and assembling underground. Director Scott Schwartz assigns this crucial tale its full due. When Golda strong-arms the U.S. into sending Israel Phantom jets by threatening to unleash her nuclear arsenal if those weapons aren’t received promptly, the full magnitude of the Middle East wars and their potential for world destruction are highlighted.
Production values play a particularly significant role. The cacophonous bomb explosions and machine gun fire fling us into the horror of combat. A ticking clock is more subtly ominous, and Howard Binkley’s flashing lights have a visceral and jarring effect on the nerves.