LENOX — Sometimes a performance is so riveting it can make you forget where you are. Even more rare is a performance that is so convincing you forget to breathe. Both of those things happen during Annette Miller’s stunning solo performance in “Golda’s Balcony” at Shakespeare & Company.
Without a prosthetic nose, a swollen leg, or a recognizable Golda Meir wig — “use your imagination,” she says in her opening lines — Miller channels the spirit of this determined woman at a critical moment in the life of the country she led.
We meet Meir near the end of her life, when she is remembering the choices she made and the idealism that drove her to become the fourth prime minister of Israel. But for playwright William Gibson (best known for “The Miracle Worker”), the climax of her life was the Yom Kippur War in 1973 when the fate of Israel, and potentially the world, was in her hands. The monologue pivots around the moment when Israel was on the brink of defeat and Meir awaits word of military support from the United States. Desperate to prevent Israel’s destruction and uncertain about the US’s commitment, Meir considered using Israel’s nuclear weapons. As the situation becomes untenable and the pressure to act mounts, Meir waits for her phone to ring with news from Washington. The sound of a ticking clock emphasizes the balance Gibson strikes between Meir’s fierce determination to act and moments of reflection (the balcony of the title refers both to her home and to the viewing platform at the Dimona nuclear reactor). In the hands of a lesser performer, Gibson’s script could easily veer into lectures from a prominent historical figure, but with Miller, the story becomes a deeply personal exploration of the complex — and often conflicted — evolution of this woman.
What is most striking is Miller’s ability to acknowledge but not emphasize Meir’s political savvy, negotiating skills, or her gift for rallying people to her side, focusing instead on her ordinariness. In immersing herself in this character, she makes the audience feel deeply invested in her struggle to care for two young children, bargain with the butcher, wash endless loads of clothes by hand. When her husband purchases a pink lampshade rather than the food or medicine the family needs, the gap between the pragmatist and the dreamer becomes impossible to bridge. She admits to her husband that she doesn’t want to disappear, and that her life’s work is helping the fledgling nation of Israel.
Her commitment to Israel grew from her family’s initial expulsion from Russia during the pogroms, her upbringing in Milwaukee, her journey to Palestine with two dozen other idealists inspired by David Ben-Gurion’s pledge to create a place that would serve as the model for “the redemption of the human race.” That cause becomes her life, leading her from speeches in Milwaukee to a kibbutz in Palestine, from working in various positions in the Israeli government to ascending to prime minister from 1969-74. Every time she dons that bulky suit jacket (a perfect touch by costume designer Govane Lohbauer) she is armed for battle as the country’s leader, even as she looks surprised, saying, “I am not a general.”
Gibson’s monologue rushes forward at a speed that only accelerates as the tension mounts. While a one-person play is a challenge in its own right, what’s astonishing is that Miller is returning to the play 21 years after starring in its world premiere at Shakespeare & Company (and later earning an Elliot Norton Award when the production moved to Central Square Theater). Time has only strengthened her understanding of this woman — her weaknesses as well as her strengths. She is so steeped in Meir’s convictions and contradictions, nothing gets in the way of the story, and the moments she takes to tie her shoes or pick up her grandson’s toy truck feel natural without a hint of artifice.
Daniel Gidron, who also directed Miller in the original production as well as “Full Gallop,” “Sotto Voce,” and “Martha Mitchell Calling,” knows almost instinctively how to guide her through her paces, moving Miller around the stage with a kind of effortless choreography.
Of course, considering the state of Israel today, Meir’s story, which culminates in her anguished comment that she had “dreamed of a paradise; what went wrong?,” may feel even more weighty. But Miller’s riveting performance is a potent reminder of the power of an individual’s commitment to a cause, and an actor’s commitment to her art.
Play by William Gibson. Directed by Daniel Gidron. Presented by Shakespeare & Company. At the Elayne Bernstein Theatre, Lenox. Through Aug. 20. www.shakespeare.org
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.