Few of the heroes of World War II were more courageous than those who risked their lives to protect potential victims of Nazi genocide. “Irena’s Vow,” a new play by Dan Gordon at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, is the dramatization of the true story of Irena Gut, a Polish Roman Catholic who managed to hide 12 Jews in the cellar of a house occupied by a German major.
Gut was a teenage nursing student when Germany invaded Poland. Joining the resistance, she was captured by Soviet forces, raped and beaten. Repatriated to Nazi-occupied Poland, she worked at a munitions plant, but her high school German caught the attention of Major Rugemer, the local commander, who transferred her to kitchen and laundry duties.
At the laundry, Irena (Tovah Feldshuh, telling the story more than 40 years later) meets 11 Jews; later, while working in the kitchen, she learns that the Jews in the laundry are to be exterminated.
After witnessing the brutal murder of a baby and its mother on the street, Irena makes the vow of the title: if she ever has the chance to save another life, she will. When the German major takes her in as his housekeeper, she devises a plan to hide the 11 Jews from the laundry, joined later by a 12th, in his coal cellar.
Mr. Gordon, a screenwriter (“The Hurricane”), based his play on Irene Gut Opdyke’s own account of her wartime experience in her book, “In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer,” and on talks she gave to high school students in the Los Angeles area. Mr. Gordon had been a friend of Ms. Opdyke, who died three years ago.
If the story might seem more suitable to the screen, the play, a production of the Director’s Company, makes an absorbing 90 minutes of theater as Irena deals with one white-knuckled close call after another. The biggest crisis arises when one of those she is hiding becomes pregnant. And when Major Rugemer learns he has been hiding Jews under his roof, Irena becomes his mistress to gain his silence.
The play provides a star vehicle for Ms. Feldshuh, always a commanding figure onstage. She uses technique — sharp intakes of breath, dramatic pauses, clenched eyes, quivering chin — to convey Irena’s inner turmoil. Michael Parva’s brisk direction keeps the action moving, and the nine cast members deliver convincing supporting performances, especially Thomas Ryan as Major Rugemer.