Friday, December 09, 2005

Golda's Balcony (Playhouse Square Center)

GOLDA’S BALCONY tells important story, but....

As I left the Palace Theatre following the opening night production of ‘GOLDA’S BALCONY, a female friend ran up to me and gushed, “Wasn’t Valerie Harper wonderful?” I paused for a second and said, “I knew it was Valerie Harper portraying Golda Meir.”

When an actor portrays a role, we should see, believe, experience the real person. There have been many portrayals that have accomplished that. Richard Kiley was Cervantes in MAN OF LAMANCHA. Zoe Caldwell was Maria Callas in Terrence McNally's ‘MASTER CLASS.’ On the local level, last year Wayne Turney didn’t portray Harry Truman at Actors’ Summit, we saw Harry Truman on stage. In that same venue, Neil Thackaberry transformed himself into Clarence Darrow several months ago. Dorothy Silver made us forget that she was Dorothy Silver and became Maria Callas in Beck’s production of MASTER CLASS. Those were “wonderful” performances. That’s what Valerie Harper should have done. It’s what, Tovah Feldshuh did when she portrayed Golda Meir in the Broadway run of the play. She was Meir.

In Harper’s case, the accent wasn’t consistent. Her body wasn’t intense, it didn’t naturally reflect the anguish. She stumbled over lines. She was acting, not reacting. I never lost the feeling I was in the theatre watching a performance. Was she bad? No. From my perspective, she was just not as wonderful as my friend seemed to think.

William Gibson, the author of ‘GOLDA’S BALCONY,’ developed the play as a series of stories, hinged together with personal comments. At times one has to wonder how much of Golda’s “own words” are really hers and how much were Gibson’s imagination. However, there is enough factual material to learn the lessons of pre-birth pangs and early years of childhood horror that the people of Israel endured.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was a controversial person. Often perceived as the strongest female leader this world has yet to experience, she was also a real person with hopes, dreams and heartaches. She obviously gave up much of her personal life, including a relationship with her husband and children, in order to help her chosen homeland become a reality.

The play is a mixture of comedy and tragedy. We often laugh through our tears from the opening explosion to the uncertain ending. The play, though it spans her entire life, focuses primarily on one incident, the Yom Kippur War of 1973. It takes us into Meir’s office as she fields a never-ending stream of phone calls, crises large and small, and political posturing while pondering her most difficult decision yet: whether to utilize nuclear weapons against her Egyptian and Syrian enemies.

Throughout, Meir’s commentary alerts us to her motives. She states, "My dream was simple, make a new world." And, make it she did. We are given a glimpse into how one woman mapped her life and how it affected the lives of millions of others.

Gibson does not sugar coat Meir. He reveals her as not only a strong and heroic leader, but someone often hard heartedly making decisions that had negative effects on those she loved.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: During its Broadway run, ‘GOLDA’S BALCONY’ was praised as “A 95-minute miracle.” It was that in the hands of Tovah Feldshuh. In the touring company personage of Valerie Harper it is an acceptable production.