The View From “Golda’s Balcony”
By Geary Danihy
What happens when an idealist achieves power, a power so frightening and horrific that it has the potential to destroy the world? It sounds like the stuff of a fantasy novel, but it is a question at the center of “Golda’s Balcony,” a gripping, one-woman play that recently opened at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford.
The person who holds this power is Golda Meir, prime minister of the State of Israel, and as the play opens she is confronted with a situation that may compel her to turn the world into a colossal ash pit, for it is 1973 and Egypt and Syria have orchestrated a surprise attack on a poorly supplied Israel, the “third Temple” that Meir has sworn to defend. The Israelis are losing tanks and planes in shocking numbers, and if help in the form of F-14 fighters and other military supplies is not forthcoming from an equivocating United States, the prime minister may be forced to approve the use of nuclear weapons on the capitals of Egypt and Syria, an action that, she well knows, might trigger a nuclear holocaust as Russia and the United States respond in kind, the two countries being locked in a game of mutually destructive blind-man’s-bluff.
Golda, played with intensity, pathos and a deep-felt sense of humanity by Kate Alexander, backs away from this high-tension moment in her cabinet room to begin reminiscing about her life, but the war hovers, for it is the frame of the play, one that playwright William Gibson has wisely used to punctuate Golda’s reminiscences, bringing her forever back to the moment when she may be forced to plunge the world into darkness, for it is the ironic conundrum that Golda wrestles with. As she reveals aspects of her life, which began early in the twentieth century in Russia during a time of pogroms, her commitment to suffering humanity becomes manifest, yet her commitment to the idea and reality of Israel is stronger, and this second commitment may force her to destroy humanity.
Director Terence Lamude has made full and wise use of the Playhouse’s limited stage, moving Alexander forward and back, left and right as she addresses the audience arranged in tiered seating that fronts and flanks the stage. The venue is small enough that Alexander can make eye contact with audience members, and this she does with stirring, often chilling effect...making a point to one person, then moving on to seek out another audience member to connect with.
Alexander is on the move throughout the entire 95 minutes of the one-act play, even thought she broke her right foot in rehearsal one day before the play opened. At times dynamic, at others reflective, she is no more so than when she deals with her marriage to Morris, a quiet, philosophical man whom Golda shanghais to an Israeli kibbutz, much to his dismay. A mother whose absence is more pronounced than her presence, Golda weighs the toll her quest has taken on the man she often leaves behind as she attends meetings in world capitals.
But it is not only Golda’s voice we hear, for Alexander creates multiple characters -- most of whom she argues with -- during the evening. Morris’s calm, reflective, questioning voice is heard, as is the voice of Golda’s mother, who is bedeviled by her daughter’s commitment to socialism. Other voices are heard, the speakers’ images projected onto multiple monitors framed on the back-paneled wall: Henry Kissinger, U.S. Secretary of State, whom Meir effectively blackmails to save her country; David Ben-Gurion, the arch Zionist and first prime minister of Israel; Moshe Dayan, the eye-patched general who proclaims gloom and doom in the early hours of the war; David “Dado” Elazar, the Israeli general who, against all odds, captures the Golan Heights; Lou Kaddar, Meir’s female secretary, who keeps Meir on an even keel as she humors her about when poison might be appropriate should everything fall apart; Simcha Dinitz, Israel’s ambassador to the United States; and King Abdullah and Pope Paul VI. All are brought vividly to life by the fast-talking Alexander, who creates confrontations between Meir and all of these characters such that you would swear there is more than one person on the stage.
As Alexander moves about the stage, at one moment bandying words with the pope, then chiding Dinitz to call Kissinger at 3 a.m., Rachel Budin’s lighting plot effectively enhances each moment. In fact, given the size of the venue, it’s a lighting tour-de-force culminated by a single tiny overhead spot that reflects back off a table to turn Meir into a creature capable of becoming evil incarnate as she weighs the possibility of nuclear war – it’s a visually stunning moment. More subtle is the front lighting onto the paneled back wall that illuminates the thin metal strips that scenic designer Jo Winiarski has fitted into the panels’ seams – they glow as Meir reveals what Golda’s second balcony was.
One-character shows are difficult to pull off, often because the pace and arc of the writing is more like that of a memoir than of a play. Such is not the case with “Golda’s Balcony,” which has a dramatic rise, climax and falling away that any playwright would be proud of. In fact, the last ten minutes of the show, as Meir weighs unleashing Armageddon as she awaits a response from the United States, are as tension-filled as you could wish for.
Make no doubt about it, “Golda’s Balcony” is first-rate theater, and Alexander’s performance is a gripping, multi-level seminar on acting techniques. She brings Meir to life, warts and all, and in the process reveals the torment a soul can undergo when reality faces off against idealism.
“Golda’s Balcony” runs through June 3. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X 10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org.