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Tovah Feldshuh in Buffalo

Feldshuh as Golda Meir in William Gibson's "Golda's Balcony," which plays four shows this weekend only at 710 Main.
"How lucky am I to play the mother of a state while I have my own mother alive!" says the actress Tovah Feldshuh.

Acclaimed actress talks about playing Golda Meir, her own mother, and her future plans

“I’ve played many Jewish mothers,” observes actress Tovah Feldshuh, “but I’m very honored to come to Buffalo to play the mother of a state, on Mother’s Day. I’ve never played Buffalo before!”

Feldshuh is one of the great actresses of her generation. She was the original Yentl on stage before Barbra Streisand did the film. The role earned her the first of four Tony award nominations. Her second nomination was for Saravà (the musical version of Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands). The third was for Lend Me a Tenor. The fourth was for her signature role, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in William Gibson’s play, Golda’s Balcony, which became the longest running one-person show in Broadway history.

Feldshuh will recreate her performance as Golda Meir at 710 Main in Buffalo for four performances this weekend.

Speaking from her New York home, the actress picks up on the Mother’s Day theme. “My own mother is still living and just turned 103 years old. She is my inspiration, and how lucky am I to play the mother of a state while I have my own mother alive!”

Feldshuh famously tells stories about her mother, Lily, in her cabaret act and in audience talkbacks—often impersonating her.

“My mother is getting me a bike for my birthday and she’s getting my brother a suit, which is hysterical!” (In a family of over-achievers, Feldshuh’s brother, David, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his play, Miss Evers’ Boys.)

“Her birthday was last Friday,” says Feldshuh. “We gave the party at the Metropolitan Club on Fifth Avenue and 60th—wish you were there! My brother did a vaudeville act with her; it was hysterical. And I did my mother routine:

“‘Tovah! I’m not coming to see you in the ‘Virginia’ Monologues—I can’t say the word. First of awl, I’m deaf, I can’t hear a gawdamned thing. And secon’ of awl, I’m not reading that script. Fuggetit! Sooo, if you’re pretty and there’s movement, give me a call!”

Feldshuh instantly goes into more mother stories, recalling her mother coming to see the Broadway revival of Pippin, in which the actress replaced Andrea Martin in the role of Berthe, the grandmother. The production has a circus motif.

“Well, in Pippin, I perform on a trapeze,” explains Feldshuh. “So, if you are a woman of my age, and you can fulfill the requirements of the role, you will get a warm reception. That night, we stopped the show. My mother came backstage and she said, ‘Tovah, dahling. That you should still have to earn a living like this. And on a trapeze yet! What’s the matta wit’ you? You married a Hah-vard lawyer! Live off of him!’

“She’s just hysterical. She will say, ‘Tovah, I don’t now how I’m gonna die. Do you have any suggestions?’

“I’ll ask, ‘Mommy, how do you stay alive?’ and she tells me, ‘Easy! Chocolate and laughta on a daily basis!’

“I worship her!”

Feldshuh explains that the woman she is playing at 710 Main this Mother’s Day weekend, Golda Meir, was not as attentive as her own mother.

“Golda had a great deal of guilt about not always being an available mother to her two biological children, Menachem and Sarah. And that is because she had a third-born, and the third-born was her primogenitor, the state of Israel. That was her baby. That was her son and her daughter combined. That was her life.”

Feldshuh, too, feels a close sense of kinship to Israel.

“I was born in the era when the state of Israel itself was new,” she says. “The first money I ever gave to charity was for the trees for the forest, to try to make the desert green, and I was always brought up to understand that Israel takes the bullets for the international Jewish community.

“I became a professional fundraiser through a speech I did. I got a peace medal from Vice President Mondale in 1978. My speech was effective enough for the leaders of the international Jewish community to say, ‘We want you to fund-raise for us.’ I said, ‘Nothing with weapons, but if I can help with other things—the righteous causes, schools, hospitals—I will do it.’

“So, between engagements, I would circle the country with my son, Brandon, who is now 30, and I would speak all over. One of the sentences was, ‘I am asking you for something very inexpensive tonight. I’m only asking you for money. I’m not asking you for your son and your daughter. I’m not asking you for your blood. They take the bullets for us. I’m just asking you for money.’ And those checkbooks would pop open. God bless them.”

Feldshuh first appeared in Golda’s Balcony at its world premiere in 2003. She has continued to return to the role, off and on, ever since.

With the name Tovah Feldshuh and a lifelong dedication to Israel, the actress holds a special status in the world of theater. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to see her in Pippin, and because his large security detail precluded him from visiting her backstage after the show, he asked to see her during intermission. The theater staff wrapped her in a robe and spirited her to a private office for the meeting.

“I just closed in Washington, DC,” she says. “Not only did [author and journalist] Marvin Kalb come, the Italian ambassador to the United States, and Ambassador [to the European Union] Stuart Eizenstat, and the head of National Security also came. It’s a political piece, yes. But it’s also an historical piece. And it’s much easier than reading books and books on the ’73 War.”

Indeed, Golda’s Balcony has proven to have a wide and diverse audience that extends far beyond the Jewish community. This makes total sense to Feldshuh.

“After all, William Gibson wrote it. He also wrote The Miracle Worker and Two for the Seesaw. He was a great American playwright and not of Golda Meir’s background, actually. He was not of her religion. She was brought up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was from the Northeast. But he did a brilliant job with the script. I take the words off the page and breathe life into his text. I have a wonderful arrangement with the Gibson estate to do this play for many, many years, and I hope to continue to do this play all over the world.”

Despite the fact that Feldshuh is closely associated with this role, as with Yentl, when it came time to make the film of Golda’s Balcony, another actress was hired, television star Valerie Harper.

“Naturally I was disappointed when they didn’t use me for the film,” admits Feldshuh, “but I love Valerie Harper very much, and I wish her long life and health. I understand that she is in remission [from cancer] now, which is fantastic. We are all so thrilled. But, Golda was 80, and I may not be a spring chicken, but I have time. My version of Golda’s Balcony will be filmed!”

For the record, excerpts of Feldshuh’s performance can be seen in the award-winning documentary, Journey to Golda’s Balcony, narrated by Alec Baldwin.

“I was able to spearhead that project and it has gone very well,” says Feldshuh. “The money earned by the documentary and the accompanying study guide, goes back to the educators who gave me the money to produce it. And it will be on sale in the lobby in Buffalo after the show, let me tell you!”

Feldshuh has always been entrepreneurial in her career, creating her own projects and one-person vehicles. In addition to Golda’s Balcony, she has appeared as Tallulah Bankhead in Tallulah Halleluiah!, as Katharine Hepburn in Tea at 5, and in her own cabaret shows.

“I am offered many roles,” explains Feldshuh, “but I am always thinking, ‘What do I want to do next?’ Well, because I wanted to be available to my children, I had to do one-person shows. I needed the autonomy. I needed to have some control over when I would work and when I would not work. Unlike Golda Meir, I chose not to go on Broadway for any extended runs for 13 years. From the time Brandon was in first grade until he got into Harvard, I did not do any extended runs. And when he got into Harvard, I immediately did Golda Meir. Literally, I went back to Broadway. We have an empty nest now, and I’m doing a [television] series.”

What else might be in Feldshuh’s future?

“I’d love to do a piece on Rose Kennedy and make it the companion piece to Golda’s Balcony and do them in rep,” she says. “The mother of a president, as opposed to the mother of a state. One a devout Catholic; one a non-religious Jew, but a great Zionist-Socialist. Very interesting comparison—two women of vision. Also, I have Rose Kennedy’s jaw. I have to do a lot of make-up for Golda; she has a different shaped face from mine.”

Feldshuh also has a Saint Joan project in mind.

“I keep getting cast as older women, because that is my perceived value, but if I could get a theater that would want my work, I would do a black box Saint Joan in a hot minute, some kind of avant-garde thing, where we combine the Shakespeare, the Anouilh, the Shaw. I’d love to do that.”

In the meantime, Feldshuh has been cast as a Russian ballet mistress in the upcoming original television series, Flesh and Bone, airing in January 2015 on STARZ.

“I’m thrilled out of my mind,” says Feldshuh. “I have to speak Russian and I’m taking ballet lessons. We’re doing eight episodes now but in honor of Buffalo, they were kind enough to give me off on May 8th and 9th so I could come to Buffalo. It’s important to keep your promises!”

As we say goodbye, Feldshuh asks to share one final thought, regarding the current volatile situation in the Middle East. I recognize the inspiring words of her curtain speech.

“I leave you with what I say to my children. If in my lifetime, I’ve lived to see the Berlin Wall come down. I’ve seen Apartheid end in South Africa. And Communism collapse in Russia. Then in our lifetimes, [through] our deeds of loving kindness and our ability as civilized human beings to make a quantum leap, surely we can effect some peace in the Middle East between Arab and Jew.”

Golda’s Balcony plays May 8-11, Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm. 710 Main Theatre, 710 Main Street. Call 1-800-745-3000 for tickets.

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