Whenever Tovah Feldshuh takes a pensive puff on a cigarette, pounds a frustrated fist on a table or confides a profound anxiety, out of all that smoke, noise and intimation of private terror emerges yet another searing trace of Golda — as in Golda Meir, the storied Israeli prime minister, who, over the course of “Golda’s Balcony,” Feldshuh so captivatingly inhabits that you wouldn’t be taken aback to hear that the actress herself had stood for the Knesset and won.
One-person shows intended to illuminate the achievements of a celebrated figure sometimes feel as if they’re skating across a thin outer layer of history. But not “Golda’s Balcony,” an absorbing, kaleidoscopic account by playwright William Gibson of the life of the first woman to lead Israel, a Milwaukee-bred Zionist whose term in office coincided with one of the most dangerous events in Israel’s history, the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The 90-minute monodrama at Theater J is propelled to a deeper communion with its subject courtesy of Gibson’s polished script and, of course, Feldshuh’s remarkable performance. Intoning Meir’s hard Wisconsin A’s and wearing those trademark shapeless suits and matronly black shoes, Feldshuh has down the voice and the look. It is, however, in the realm of passion that her portrayal hooks us most assuredly, for Meir was truly and madly in love with the land to which she immigrated, and “Golda’s Balcony” communicates this poignant ardor in a way that makes the conflicts in her life between her public and personal responsibilities, her moral courage and more pragmatic instincts, excitingly transparent.
The play was itself a pragmatic afterthought for Theater J’s season, an add-on production amid the turmoil at the D.C. Jewish Community Center over “The Admission,” a play by Israeli dramatist Motti Lerner that tackles the disturbing question of whether an atrocity was committed in an Arab village by Israeli soldiers during the 1948 war that secured the country’s independence. Presumably, “Golda’s Balcony,” with its lively portraiture of a hero of Israeli nationhood, was to have been a counterpoint to Lerner’s more troubling piece, which is nowmoving to a short commercial run at Studio Theatre.
But Gibson, author earlier in his career of the now-classic “The Miracle Worker,” did not compose a jingoistic hagiography. “Golda’s Balcony” — in which Feldshuh starred on Broadway, starting in October 2003 — is a sober-minded assessment of Meir that both honors and analyzes. Reflecting the prime minister’s own clear-eyed, blunt-spoken manner (and humor), the piece lays bare Meir’s flaws as well as her successes. Even the title’s implication proves misleadingly serene, for the balcony refers to a perch in the Negev desert far more ominous than relaxing.
The narrative frame for “Golda’s Balcony” is the Yom Kippur War, when Israel came under surprise attack on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar by Egypt and others among its hostile neighbors, and Meir faced an anguishing decision. With the military outlook bleak, Israel’s allies wavering and the prospect of Jewish annihilation becoming real again, she had to contemplate the unthinkable: arming the remnants of her air force with nuclear warheads. This peace-loving woman who seemed constitutionally incapable of running from a fight was now poised to ignite the most cataclysmic one in history. (Coincidentally, the war’s significance is also a subject of “Camp David,” Arena Stage’s current offering, which is set at the 1978 peace talks between Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Meir’s successor after Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin.)
The protean Feldshuh radiates the intelligence and intensity necessary to carry off this accomplished portrayal. And this is not the only one: The play, ably directed by Scott Schwartz, requires her to provide concise impressions of others in her story, from her dutiful and long-suffering husband, Morris, to Henry Kissinger. It’s rife, too, with her earthy sense of humor. Of the bedroom adventures of Moshe Dayan, the dashing Israeli war hero and defense minister, Meir says, “I always wondered — did he take the eye patch off?”
As Feldshuh makes clear, along with a dry wit, Meir had a flair for the dramatic, a trait that’s exhibited most vividly in a scene flashing back to a money-raising tour of the United States that Meir undertook before Israeli statehood. Addressing American Jews, she seems to know just the right words to use to reach her audiences, to trouble their consciences and stir with incontrovertible evidence and allusions their collective sense of dread and grief. David Ben-Gurion, one of Israel’s founding fathers, sent her to America to raise the outlandish sum of $25 million. She came back with $50 million.
Such is the supercharged Feldshuh’s authentic feel for this role that if the country were to deputize her for another mission, you’d be convinced she’d return with $150 million.
By William Gibson. Directed by Scott Schwartz. Set, Anna Louizos; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, Alex Hawthorn; wig, Paul Huntley. About 90 minutes. Tickets, $35-$75. Through April 27 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit www.boxofficetickets.com or call 800-494-8497.