After playing Jewish mothers in the recent films "Kissing Jessica Stein" and "A Walk on the Moon," Tovah Feldshuh might have feared being typecast when offered a role as another older Jewish woman.
But the matron in question was Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister. So the answer was yes.
"Here’s the thing: This is the greatest role of my career," Feldshuh said in a telephone interview after rehearsals for "Golda’s Balcony," which opens tonight at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway. "Why is it the greatest role of my career? Because she had the biggest life. It was a life dedicated to the birth of a nation."
Feldshuh’s resume already is rife with great ladies. She’s portrayed Diana Vreeland, Sarah Bernhardt, Stella Adler, Sophie Tucker, Katherine Hepburn,
Tallulah Bankhead (in "Tallulah Hallelujah!," a one-woman piece she wrote) and a Czech freedom fighter (in TV’s "Holocaust" miniseries).
True greatness, she suggests, comes from "the ability and the desire to serve in a cause greater than yourself. Most people, if they’re not insane, at least are in service to their children," said Feldshuh, the mother of two. "For Golda, the State of Israel was her first child."
That makes for an entirely different kind of Jewish mother.
Feldshuh has been playing the Ukraine-born, American-bred stateswoman since March, when William Gibson’s play opened to acclaim at Soho’s Manhattan Ensemble Theater. (Annette Miller performed the role at Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts.)
Feldshuh liked the intimacy of Off-Broadway, but says Broadway is her home. After all, the Sarah Lawrence Graduate made her New York stage debut there, after wining a McKnight fellowship in acting to the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minnesota. At 23, she earned a Tony nomination and the Theatre World Award for her starring role in Broadway’s "Yentl."
Feldshuh is getting a warm welcome home. The filmmaker Gerard Issembert is shooting a documentary on the making of "Golda’s Balcony," and Feldshuh has plans to bring the play to film and television. The Broadway run has brought in the highest presale "in the history of the Helen Hayes, well over $1.5 million," she said. "We’re being carried on the wings of our Off-Broadway success. We’re making, if you will, aliyah to Broadway."
That’s an apt metaphor for a play about a witty and passionate leader who believed that for Jews to live in full dignity, they had to live in a Jewish state.
Feldshuh may have opted to use her Hebrew name (at the suggestion of a non-Jewish boyfriend, no less) but the girl who grew up Terri Sue in a Conservative household in Scarsdale says she has no plans to immigrate to Israel. Yet after over 100 performances as Golda she understands the concept of aliyah for the first time. "I don’t mean philosophically," she said. "I mean from my gut."
The play, however, is not an advertisement for Israel. Set in 1973 at the time of the Yom Kippur War, "Golda’s Balcony" deals with what happens when idealism becomes power. Gibson (perhaps best known for "the Miracle Worker," about Helen Keller) wrote about Golda Meir based on conversations he had with her in 1977, a year before she died.
Flashbacks fill in the story of Golda Mabovitch, whose family weathered pogroms in Kiev before decamping to Milwaukee in 1906. She married Morris Myerson of Denver and in 1921 moved to a kibbutz in Palestine.
There, she rose through the labor union movement to become minister of labor, foreign minister and ultimately prime minister.
To prepare for the role, Feldshuh followed Meir’s footsteps. She researched at the Golda Meir Library in Milwaukee, visited Denver and toured Israel, where she stopped at Kibbutz Merhavyah, Yad Vashem and the Jordanian border. "All the references in the text," she said referring to Gibson’s script. She returned just a day before rehearsals began.
One thing that surprised Feldshuh most was her discovery that Meir had lovers. "She was sexy," the actress said. But rather than lingerie, Feldshuh’s costumes consist of dowdy dresses, body and leg padding, a wiry wig and a prosthetic nose. To portray the chain-smoking premier, Feldshuh, a lifelong non-smoker, also had to learn how to puff convincingly without inhaling.
She doesn’t mind the fat suit, she said, but as for the smoking, "I do not care for it."