Platform for Jewish-Polish Dialogue  

Irena's Vow on Broadway

By Elyse Sommer

The Off-Broadway hit will have a life on Broadway. Tovah Feldshuh and the rest of the cast have signed on to reprise their performances at the Walter Kerr beginning 3/10/09.

You are the last generation who will hear from a living witness to the Holocaust. . .you have a responsibility. . .every time you meet hatred, stand up against it and that way, it can never happen again.
— Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic woman who saved a dozen Jews during the Holocaust, urging a group of students to never again allow such horrors to happen

Tovah Feldshuh in Irena's Vow (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

With fewer and fewer people who experienced the Nazi Holocaust first hand still alive and too many others who are bigoted and/or misinformed to know better denying that it actually happened, plays like Irena's Vow are vital historic documentaries. As dramatized by Dan Gordon, the story of one of that horrible period's righteous Gentiles is not only a powerful emotional drama but a ripping good story. And with Tovah Feldshuh portraying the courageous Irene Gut Opdyke, who risked her own life to save a dozen Jews right, her story is brought to vivid life on the stage of the Baruch Performing Arts Center.

Feldshuh, who most recently portrayed Israel's Golda Meir, another gutsy woman faced with life and death decisions, now plays this less famous woman of conscience and courage as a senior citizen as well as a young woman still in her teens whose first "date" was as the rape victim of nine Russian soldiers. She shows this frightened teenager grow into a savvy survivor and true heroine. Her unanticipated and unlikely heroism began when, she was promoted from being a slave laborer to serving as the housekeeper in the house taken over from Polish Jews by the highest German officer during the German occupation of Poland. Bolstered by her strong faith and incredible resourcefulness, she managed to shelter a dozen Jews right under her employer's nose.

It's an amazing and moving story, with an equally amazing and moving performance by Feldshuh. Since Gordon has structured the play so that it begins with Irena at about 70 telling her story to a group of high school students in order to insure that the tragedy of the Holocaust is never forgotten, we know that her story, unlike so many from that period, had a happy ending. Knowing the outcome frees us from the unbearable tension about the fate of Irena and "her Jews." Gordon also provides Feldshuh with enough opportunities to leaven the overaching sense of danger. However, the positive ending notwithstanding, there's still plenty of cause for tooth-clenching in being privvy to the incredible evil at work during that war and in following Irena's numerous brushes with discovery and disaster.

While a live theater piece like this can't possibly match the big budget, big screen bells and whistles of a Schindler's List, Michael Parva has given given Irena's Vow an effective and dramatically solid staging. The several platforms that comprise Kevin Judge's simple set, handily accommodate the various locations —the high school auditorium where the play begins, the living room, kitchen and basement hiding room of Major Rugemer's house (Thomas Ryan). Alex Koch adds just enough projected black and white photos to ground the play in fact. Quentin Chiapetta's original music supports the chilling atmosphere.

Unlike Golda's Balcony which Ms. Feldshuh turned into a hit single-handedly, this attention must be paid drama is not a solo effort. But Feldshuh still does all the heavy lifting. The actors playing the various other characters populate the stage, but it's Feldshuh who dominates. Thomas Ryan's Major Rugemer isn't quite Germanic enough nor does he fully capture the sense of the Major as a man of who still has a shred of humanity, though in the end we do believe that the relationship he forces on Irena is not just an exercise of power, but prompted by admiration.

It's too bad that Irena Gut Opdyke didn't live long enough to see this fine tribute to her bravery. Fortunately she had a daughter who was at hand at the performance attended to give an extra emotional glow to the curtain call.

Written by Dan Gordon Directed by Michael Parva Cast: Starring Tovah Feldshuh as Irene Gut Opdyke; also Sandi Carroll (Helen/Rokita's secretary), Tracee Chimo (Fanka Silberman), Steven Hauck (Schultz), Scott Klavan (The Visitor), Peter Reznikoff (Mayor of Jerusalem), Thomas Ryan (Major Rugemer), Gene Silvers (Lazar Hallar), John Stanisci (Strumbannfuhrer Rakita) and Maja Wampuszyc (Ida Hallar).
Scenic Design: Kevin Judge
Lighting Design: David Castaneda
Costume Design: Astrid Brucker
Original Music & Sound Design: Quentin Chiappetta
Projection Design: Alex Koch
Wig Design: Leah J. Loukas
Stage manager: Alan Fox
Running Time: 90 minutes without an intermission
Director's Company in association with Power Productions & The Polish Cultural Institute at Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue @ 25th Street
Opening 9/22/08; closing 11/02/0811/02/08-
Mondays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m.
All tickets are $55, with $25 Student Rush ticketsavailable one hour before the show.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 9/19/08