Golda’s Balcony by William Gibson. Directed by Daniel Gidron.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Annette Miller as Golda Meir; photo provided
Annette Miller; Photo provided
"At the bottom of the teapot is blood."
Annette Miller frightens me. Seven years ago she took on the role of Golda Meir and I thought her performance perfect. Now, as part of the Diva Series at Shakespeare and Company, here is Annette Miller once again, reprising Golda Meir and making her ten times more human, fifty times more intimidating and altogether far too real. There is something superhuman in that ability to recreate something and do it even better. Here is no Carol Channing act with exactly the same gestures, inflections and rhythms. Here is life breathing on an enlarged soapbox.
Golda Meir is Prime Minister of Israel at the start of the play and is still holding on to that role at the end of it, although she admits she is ready to step aside. It is 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, so-called because of the attack on Israel by her Arab neighbors on that holiest of Jewish High Holy days. It is the day of atonement and Golda, for real, is forced to atone for her own sins: sins of omission, commission and permission.
As she lives out her memories of youth, marriage, migration and social involvement, she brings to the forefront of her mind and our consciousness the various vigorous stages of her life. Born in pogrom-filled Russia, raised in Milwaukee, and living on the International circuit, Golda is charged with the responsibility of shepherding her adopted nation, one she helped to create, through a national disaster, the seeming betrayal of faith toward her country by the Nixon administration and a global disinterest in becoming involved with Israel’s oppression. How Golda handles it, alone in her office, sitting at cabinet meetings with an unseen contingent of military and militant men, offending her family through her seeming disaffection, is the substance of the play, the meat. The gravy is in the performance.
Miller transforms herself without much help from makeup or wig or artifice into the dowdy woman in a hairnet whose face is emblazoned on so many people’s memories. Here is the woman who charmed fifty million dollars out of Jewish-Americans in the late 1940s, a time when money was scarce, the past was too recent to even haunt people and Israel still a vision of the future. Here is the statesman who did television interviews and appeals for support. Here is the woman we don’t expect, the chicken-soup cooker who weeps over the children who died in Cyprus even as she pleads with adults who have waited in internment camps for their release to give up their rightful places so that children can emigrate. Miller gives such a sense of immediacy and reality to all of this that it is almost as though we live within her; we feel her pain and we experience her joy; we know her thoughts and we are gripped by her emotions.
She has been guided through William Gibson’s script, which she helped to develop, by director Daniel Gidron, a man who lived in Israel through the war during which this play is set. Perhaps he has brought something special into play, sharing his own experiences with the actress, giving her a deeper insight than any script could do. Perhaps he has just used his knowledge of the events to impart something sure and simple to her. It is impossible to know. Still, the combination of movement and internal direction has purchased a resultant performance that will, itself, haunt even the most casual observer.
A set by Kiki Smith brings an essence of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall into the picture. Govane Lohbauer’s simple costume and perfect shoes do most of the creating of the character’s physical presence. Greg Solomon’s lighting keeps the present and the past under strict control and when the play gets into the revelatory moment about the play’s title, there is an unusual chilly heat about the setting.
"The view into Hell," Golda says about her balcony and what it provides and the truth is so much stranger than fiction that we know it is absolutely, one hundred percent reality.
That is the keystone of this production. Golda is "a bit contradictory" as she says, and her life story shows the power of power and how impossible it is for someone who is innately powerful to ever escape her fate. Annette Miller is also powerful and I tremble as I write this, hoping that not one word is out of place, for her strength is such - I cannot imagine how she does eight shows a week of this play - that she would seek me out and reprimand me for any untoward remark. Seeing this performance twice in seven years makes the experience so much more worthwhile.
See it at least once.
Golda’s Balcony plays at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theater on the Shakespeare & Company campus at 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA through July 3 and returns for a single performance on September 13. For schedules and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353 or find them on line at www.shakespeare.org.