Cool Hand Nuke: Meir wrestles with turning to the nuclear option.
Cool Hand Nuke: Meir wrestles with turning to the nuclear option.

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The first time William Gibson wrote about a play about Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister who had her finger on the button throughout her country’s October 1973 siege by Egyptian and Syrian forces, it was 1977 and his script called for more than 20 actors. The show flopped. That Golda’s Balcony—his complete overhaul of the piece as a one-woman show—debuted at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre mere days after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq is a bitter irony, given how bearish the play is on the prospect of Middle East peace. Patient viewers might pair it with Arena Stage’s more optimistic world-premiere historical drama Camp David, currently running, for an illuminating double-feature.

Golda’s Balcony earned star Tovah Feldshuh her fourth Tony Award nomination and a Drama Desk Award for best solo performance. Her revival of the part for a three-week run at Theater J won’t leave anyone wondering why. In this forceful, vivid telling, the awful calculus of ordering people to their deaths weighs heavily of Meir, as it would on any person of conscience. Feldshuh, by contrast, is utterly at ease with the demands of her job. After playing this role for hundreds of performances—it was the longest-running one-woman-show in Broadway history—she’s still magnetic.

Gibson has supplied her with superb material. In his perfervid imagining, Meir is narrating her life story in the final days before her death from lymphoma in 1978. The event around which her recollections turn is her anguished deliberations over whether to resort to “temple weapons”—nukes—as the Israeli Defense Forces are being routed on two fronts, and the F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers and other military aid promised by President Richard Nixon is slow to arrive.

It feels like the second-worst possible outcome for her dream of a Jewish state, the one that led the Kiev-born, Milwaukee-educated Meir to move with her husband to a Palestinian kibbutz when she was in her early twenties, almost half a century earlier. “We were rid of the kaiser, we were rid of the tsar,” her older, sadder self reflects. “There were no more tyrants.” But her early years in Palestine were marked by marital strife and poverty, problems that would seem miniscule in hindsight. Decades later, she learns that power can be as soul-wearying as powerlessness: asking adult Jews interned in disease-infested British-run camps in Cyprus after World War II to stay so that children may leave, touring the United States to raise $50 million from American Jews to arm the Israeli Defense Forces. “I start off with the redemption of the human race and end up in the munitions business,” she laments.

Transforming the petite, now-61-year-old Feldshuh into the older, stockier Meir is a complicated affair involving a wig and padding and age makeup and even inserts to make her calves appear swollen with phlebitis. “If you think I really look like this, you’re crazy,” Feldshuh told Sunday’s matinee crowd in clearly prepared but seemingly heartfelt remarks that followed her standing ovation.

Otherwise, the show’s physical particulars are sparse. Scenic Consultant Anna Louizos’ set isn’t much more than a table at which Meir can brew tea, take phone calls, and chain smoke. Spare video projections periodically remind us where this all is taking place or show us the faces of the principals: Transjordan Emir King Abdullah, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. (“I always wondered: Did he take the eyepatch off?” Meir asks of Dayan’s apparently busy love life. Later, she refers candidly to her own assignations with powerful leaders, men who understood her problems in way her gentle husband Morris Meyerson never could.) Her recollections are punctuated by shelling and small arms fire, loud enough to unsettle your stomach.

The balcony of the title isn’t some sunlit terrace from which a beloved head of state could bask in the adoration of her citizens. It was an observation area at the Negev Nuclear Research Center, the secret underground facility in the desert where Israel is widely believed to have built its nuclear arsenal. “It’s a view into hell,” Feldshuh says. She makes you believe that Meir was the kind of leader who would force herself to gaze into it.