After decades in show business, Tovah Feldshuh may be ready to answer a question the Bard long ago posed: What’s in a name?
The award-winning actress — currently portraying Golda Meir off-Broadway in William Gibson’s “Golda’s Balcony,” which opened this week at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater — was born not Tovah, but Terry Sue.
She took on her Jewish moniker at the behest of a non-Jewish college flame, who suggested to Feldshuh that Terry was too much of a “featherweight name” for the burgeoning star. He thought it was “not becoming of the city of my birth,” Feldshuh said. “I was born in Manhattan at 90th and Lex.”
So, after rejecting “Felsh” and “Midge” (those grade-school kids liked to remark on her height), Feldshuh tried out Tovah as her name, though she had previously reserved it for her religious school classroom growing up in Scarsdale, N.Y.
The name stuck, though the boyfriend did not. “I was trained,” the actress told the Forward, “we don’t intermarry.”
With an upbringing like that, it may surprise her fans that Feldshuh, who made her name playing Yentl and garnered rave reviews for her Jewish mother portrayal in the film “Kissing Jessica Stein,” did not set out to be a “Jewish actress.” Quite the contrary. As a senior at Sarah Lawrence College (where she met the aforementioned boyfriend), Feldshuh applied both to Harvard Law School and for a McKnight fellowship in acting. Her choice was made for her when she was wait-listed for law school and won the acting fellowship; Feldshuh lit out for Minnesota and the esteemed Tyrone Guthrie Theater to study classical theater.
After a musical she worked on at the Guthrie moved to New York, Feldshuh’s big break though came at the tender age of 23, when she played the title role in the 1975 Broadway production of “Yentl.” The next big offer came from the producers of “Holocaust,” the 1978 NBC miniseries. Feldshuh accepted and was nominated for an Emmy for her work. “The whole State of Israel dropped on me,” said Feldshuh.
She went on to star on Broadway, portraying such Jewish women as Sarah Bernhardt, Stella Adler and Sophie Tucker. She played nine Jews from birth to death off-Broadway in “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh.”
She’s had non-Jewish roles, too, including in the “Vagina Monologues,” and in “Three Sisters” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She’s played lead roles in the prestigious Roundabout Theatre’s “She Stoops to Conquer” and “Mistress of the Inn.”
She has been nominated for three Tony Awards and won four Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Critics Circle Awards and an Obie. Her film credits include Jewish mothers in “A Walk on the Moon” and the aforementioned “Kissing Jessica Stein.” She has a recurring part on NBC’s mega-hit “Law and Order.”
Currently, she’s in talks for a half-hour TV sitcom. But she took time out from her busy schedule to chat with the Forward about her portrayal of Meir, another outspoken and strong Jewish woman.
When she learned about “Golda’s Balcony,” Feldshuh, who makes her home with her husband, Andrew Levy, on the Upper West Side, had been trying to edge more in the Hollywood direction, now that her children — her oldest, Garson, is a sophomore at Harvard University; her youngest, Amanda, is in high school at Manhattan’s Spence — require less hands-on attention from their mamele.
She spoke to the Forward via phone from a hotel in Los Angeles, where she had flown to take some meetings, as they say in the Biz. “I’m sitting here in Chanel, for Christ’s sake,” Feldshuh said, as her mother sat in an adjoining room.
Feldshuh’s manager, Jean Fox , helped Feldshuh land the New York debut of “Golda’s Balcony” after the play premiered in the Berkshires last summer to rave reviews. “I am with them to get film and television,” Feldshuh said wryly of her management team. “So naturally they hand me Golda on a silver platter.”
In truth, Feldshuh said, Gibson, the playwright, “interests me tremendously.” She read the script and was sold. Preparations for the play took her to the land between the coasts, Milwaukee in particular, where Meir (formerly Meyerson) moved with her family from Ukraine in 1906. Feldshuh spent hours in the city’s Golda Meir Library studying for the one-woman show in which her multiple roles include army generals, Meir’s mother, Meir’s husband and Meir herself. They play is based primarily on conversations Gibson had with Meir during 1977.
Feldshuh characterizes the prime minister as a “strong woman made out of the solidity of the earth and the wisdom of the earth. She could act quickly, but her energy is much more stolid than mine.” Feldshuh called the endeavor “one of the great roles of my career, an honor.”
This despite her initial reluctance about taking the part. “I was not interested in playing another Jewish mother,” Feldshuh said. “Instead of the mother of children, I’m now the mother of a nation.”
Feldshuh has been honored numerous times by numerous organizations, including Hadassah. “Whatever farkakte reason they want to honor me for, if I show up in a suit and say a few words, and they make money out of it,” it’s terrific, Feldshuh said. “I don’t want to be a creep about it,” she said. “I would help the Gay Men’s Chorus. I should certainly help Hadassah.”
The strange thing is, it all started with a name. The summer after her discussion with her then boyfriend, Feldshuh performed in summer stock under the stage name Terry Fairchild, her first name, his last. “Why I didn’t take that, God knows,” Feldshuh said. “I would have gotten a different splay of rolls, but then I wouldn’t have gotten to serve the Jewish community, which has been my pleasure.”