GOLDA'S BALCONY at Playhouse on Park offers a view of history
Recently in a review of Long Wharf’s My Name is Asher Lev, a fellow critic seemed to bemoan the dearth of Jewish plays presented on regional stages. My first thought was, “In which state?” As a critic, in early 2012 alone, I have seen The Whipping Man, Fiddler on the Roof, Number the Stars, My Name is Asher Lev, and now, Golda’s Balcony. That doesn’t even count Red at TheaterWorks, which although not necessarily about the Jewish experience, is about a famous Jewish artist and touches briefly on his roots. It struck me that complaining about the difficulty of finding Jewish stories on theatre stages was like saying there is nowhere good to get soul food in Harlem.
Much of Judaism’s history has been the history of exile, disenfranchisement, and horrifying persecution. It is no wonder that Jewish heritage makes the stuff of great drama. In point of fact, the history of theatre in the United States is owed in large part to the historic, creative and fiscal capital of the Jewish community.
The theatrical Jewish history lesson that I have undergone this spring has been a survey of Tsarist Russian pogroms, Reconstruction-era American South, the Holocaust, Brooklyn’s immigrant Hasidic community, and the heights of the Manhattan art world. With Playhouse on Park’s Golda’s Balcony, I hit a bit of an apotheosis. This is not because the play is a great play. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. It is because in Golda Meir rests a singular cross-section of the religious Jew, the pacifist Jew, the militarized Jew and the fiercely proud Jew.
The story of Golda Meir is a fascinating twist on Jewish history as she represents a turning point. An idealist, a Zionist and, in her way, a feminist, Meir was the empowered and politicized Jewish woman. Seventy-five years of her life is neatly encapsulated in the 90-minute-plus running time of Golda’s Balcony.
Set in her waning days, the play opens with Meir, played by Kate Alexander, proclaiming that she is dying. Like many a one-actor show that precedes it, we ping-pong around the greatest hits of a life that was writ large. The linchpin of the show is the tense build-up surrounding the Yom Kippur War, a major Arab-Israeli conflict that not only tested the mettle of then-Prime Minister Meir, but also secretly heightened the Cold War in 1973 with the threat of nuclear holocaust.
Between recounting fraught cabinet meetings and aggressive interactions with Washington, Meir gallops through her courtship, Zionist activism, life in the Kibbutz, and the founding of Israel. The personal cost of her commitment to founding a Jewish homeland is profound and the play handles it well. Kate Alexander makes a powerful, rich impression as Golda Meir. This is not to say that her performance is an impression; it is a fully-committed characterization making good use of Alexander’s profound range. Dramaturgically, there are too many concessions to the fact that this is, in fact, a piece of theatre (Meir commands the sound operator to cut the music on her own memory and acknowledges the running time of the piece). Director Terence Lamude has the ostensibly dying Golda Meir running around the stage (a miraculous feat not only because she is dying, but Ms. Alexander had broken her foot the night before opening, gamely going on with the show).
The production is very busy with lots of sound, video and light cues. If someone is mentioned, however briefly, their picture goes up on a screen. If she recounts a phone call, the phone gets picked up. If she’s on a plane, we hear a plane. Her jacket comes and on and goes off about a dozen times, as if the Prime Minister of Israel would ball up her jacket to illustrate feeding chickens or holding a baby. By obviating every moment, Lamude robs the theatre of one of its greatest assets -- imagination.
These are minor gripes on my part. Golda’s Balcony and Playhouse on Park are well worth the journey. The two things you won’t hear me kvetching about, the dearth or surplus of Jewish stories on our stages.