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Golda Meir, Public and Private, on Stage

October 15, 2003 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ In the beginning, a haggard woman, cigarette in hand, sits at a table in what could be a gloomy, Stone Age bunker and announces, ``I’m at the end of my stories.″

Not so. There are plenty of tales left to tell in ``Golda’s Balcony,″ a fine portrait of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir during one of her most difficult times _ the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

This one-woman show, which opened Wednesday at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre, expertly walks the line between illumination and entertainment. And negotiating this difficult path is a marvelous Tovah Feldshuh, done up in a gray wig, fake nose and fat suit as the matronly looking grandmother with a will of steel.

The play by William Gibson grew out of ``Golda,″ Gibson’s 1977 Broadway flop that featured a large cast and Anne Bancroft as the tough-minded Meir. Heavily revised and with a new title, the streamlined, 90-minute ``Golda’s Balcony″ ended up last season at off-Broadway’s Manhattan Ensemble Theater with Feldshuh in the starring role. Now this fascinating bit of history should have a whole new life.

Gibson skillfully weaves together the story of the public and private Meir. We see the youthful idealist who was born in Russia but raised in Milwaukee, a woman who in 1921 moved to Palestine with her reluctant husband, Morris Myerson.

``Zionism was my whole life,″ announces Meir. That intense commitment was not shared by her helpmate, and their uneasy marriage and family life are two of the major threads that snake their way through Gibson’s play.

The other, of course, is the 1973 war, with a put-upon Meir arguing not only with her generals but badgering and perhaps blackmailing the United States for desperately needed military aircraft.

The play’s title actually refers to two balconies _ one, the balcony from Meir’s family apartment that overlooked the sea; the second an observation post from which she watched the secret construction of Israel’s first nuclear reactor, a vantage point referred to by others as ``Golda’s balcony.″

In between time on these two balconies, Meir tells the story of her devotion to Palestine and later to the newly formed state of Israel as she climbs the ladder of government to become prime minister.

Gibson’s heroine is not without flaws. She’s a willful woman, often overly zealous in her dedication to her country, yet haunted at the end of her life (she died in 1978) by all the young men who died under her watch for their beleaguered nation.

That Feldshuh manages to make Meir believable and likable is a testament to the actress’ skill as a storyteller. She’s also a natural comedian, a talent that lets her make the most of the play’s few yet choice moments of humor.

Meir’s stories are often punctuated by the sounds of war, ear-shattering blasts of bombs, guns and jet planes. Director Scott Schwartz intersperses these sound effect with haunting photographic projections of many of the people who met Meir during her long career _ generals and politicians alike.

Yet it is Feldshuh’s portrayal of the indomitable Meir that will remain in your mind long after the curtain has come down.