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“Golda’s Balcony,” William Gibson’s trenchant and soul-wrenching play about former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, begins with a small puff of smoke and ends with a loud scream for peace.

The smoke comes from a match held in the shaky hands of Broadway veteran Tovah Feldshuh, which she has just extinguished after lighting her first cigarette of the evening. Between pensive puffs, Feldshuh begins to tell the riveting story of Meir’s improbable rise from a young girl whose family fled the pogroms of their native Kiev to a woman who held the fate of the entire Middle East in her hands.

The scream for peace – a staccato “Shalom!” repeated with ear-splitting insistence in Meir’s nasal Milwaukee accent – comes from a voice addled by years of tireless work and near-constant anxiety in the pursuit of peace. Not to mention the cigarettes.

That’s what this extraordinary play boils down to: A lot of little puffs of smoke and plenty of tortured screams sent up against an impossible challenge, punctuated in exactly the right moments by natural moments of humor and wistful reminiscences about life in a young and unstable nation.

After hundreds of performances, Feldshuh has melted into Meir’s character so that any trace of the actress almost completely disappears. She wastes no movement and allows no moment to waver even for an instant.

Aside from her utterly convincing characterization – helped along by Jess Goldstein’s fine costume and her exaggerated version of Meir’s Milwaukee accent – Feldshuh’s most admirable talent in this show is in shifting so naturally between ruminations on deathly serious matters and lighthearted reflections on the personalities of her past.

In one scene, in the middle of a blow-by-blow recounting of the Six-Day War of 1967, she switches gears to ponder aloud about the sex life of Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan. “I wonder, did he take the eye patch off?” she says with the hint of a smirk, indicating that she may know the answer. Then she dives back into the bloody quest after Israeli statehood. It’s comic relief, certainly, but Feldshuh makes it clear that the relief is more for Meir’s own conflicted soul than for the audience.

There are so many other masterful acting moments peppered throughout the play that you come away with a truly three-dimensional idea of what Meir must have been like. There’s the way Feldshuh takes three long sips of her tea, the way she employs body language to transport the audience to a gathering of 50,000 Jews in the Moscow streets or a dark room memorializing Holocaust victims in the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem.

It doesn’t hurt that she has Gibson’s script to work with. His alternately poetic and straightforward recounting of Meir’s life, while it glosses over some of the controversies that engulfed the end of her term and tends slightly toward hagiography, perfectly captures the conflicted territory she inhabits, between preserving her state by any means necessary and her genuine hatred of war. He paints Meir as a dutiful leader who did not seek her post, but who treated it with a kind of tortured equanimity at a time when it was direly needed.

The only false note in director Scott Schwartz’s well-oiled production, which uses a fine and simple set design by Anna Louizos and smart sound design by Alex Hawthorne based on Mark Bennett’s original sound design for Broadway, are its graphically unsophisticated projections by Batwin and Robin Productions. But they’re easy enough to ignore when you have someone like Feldshuh to concentrate on.

It’s rare that an audience can learn so much and become so intimately familiar with a character in the space of 90 minutes. It seems unlikely that you’ll leave a performance of “Golda’s Balcony” without feeling profoundly moved.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com