Broadway superstars have been unusually ubiquitous in Washington recently. There was Idina Menzel (before she was Adele Dazeem) headlining the premiere of “If/Then” at National Theatre late last year, and then Patti LuPone belting it out alongside Mandy Patinkin at the Kennedy Center in February. The trio of Tony winners had barely left town when Kathleen Turner showed up to sing and stomp her way through “Mother Courage and Her Children” at Arena Stage, shortly before Stacy Keach agreed to play Falstaff with Shakespeare Theatre Company.
And the trend continues. This week, Broadway fixture Tovah Feldshuh makes her Washington debut at Theater J, reprising her role in the one-woman play “Golda’s Balcony,” which scored her a fourth Tony nomination in 2004.
It turns out that interviewing Broadway’s great divas isn’t like talking to Hollywood actors (even when there’s crossover, as with the Oscar-nominated Turner). Tinseltown’s bright lights tend to speak in publicist-approved soundbites. Stage actors are a little more fearless.
“It’s just like Bette Davis said, ‘Broadway ain’t for sissies,’ ” Feldshuh says by phone from her home in New York.
The actress maintains a confident clarity even when she gets started on what some might consider conversational landmines, from politics to plastic surgery. But that approach has served her well so far.
“It’s hard to believe [it’s been] 40 years I’ve been on Broadway — and 38 of those I’ve been on the marquee — you know ‘Yentl’ put me on the marquee of the O’Neill Theater in New York,” she says. “I’ve loved my career. I believe I’ve done film and television and plays that are worthy pieces of literature and stories that should be told.”
And “Golda’s Balcony” has been worth retelling. It holds the record for the longest-running one-woman show on Broadway, and Feldshuh agrees to tour with it when the right opportunity comes up, which it did with Theater J. In the play, written by William Gibson and originally directed by Scott Schwartz, she takes on the role of Israeli prime minister Golda Meir as she looks back on her life just before her death at age 80, in 1978.
Feldshuh, 61, has a deep appreciation for Meir, and her understanding of the role has deepened as she has inched ever-so-slightly closer to the age of Meir in “Golda’s Balcony.”
“I had a piano teacher who said, ‘Get it accurate, get it excellent, get it effortless,’ so that’s what you’re hitting with actors who revisit roles,” she says. “The part has had so many hours and months and years in my case to marinate in the body and the soul and the intelligence, in the neshama — that’s the Hebrew word, ‘that which is eternal.’ So it sits there and it’s always with you, it’s a companion for you.”
Feldshuh and Meir have little in common physically, and the pre-performance routine involves heavy make-up. The actress wears a fake nose and wig, and uses large strings of wool under support hose to mimic the inflammation in Meir’s legs caused by phlebitis.
Feldshuh isn’t willing to lose her figure for the part — “I weigh what I did in seventh grade,” she says — and has no plans to alter herself permanently the way other actors have.
“If the actor aspires to be transformational,” she says, “and I think the great actors have that goal, at least, whether you look at Meryl [Streep] or the early part of Bobby De Niro’s career, or you look at Dustin [Hoffman], my God, they want to transform.
“So you don’t want to mess with your face. You have to have 1,000 faces to express 1,000 things. If you pull the skin out of your face, you only have 100 faces. So if you’re playing one part, i.e., a newscaster, maybe you can afford that.”
“Golda’s Balcony” runs for 21 shows, which is more than Feldshuh normally does at one time, but she is particularly excited about doing the play in Washington, around what she calls a more intimate campfire. And she has no doubt D.C. theatergoers will be pleased.
“There’s an effortlessness with the revisiting of it and a quiet, centered confidence. Because what am I going to question whether I’m competent in this role?” she says with a laugh. “I mean people are still buying it, after all.”
Through April 27. Theater J,
1529 16th St. NW. 800-494-8497.
www.washingtondcjcc.org/center-for-arts/theater-j. $50-$85; $45-$80 seniors; $35-$40 age 35 and younger.