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A CurtainUp Review
Irena's Vow

A Broadway Life for Irena's Vow

by Elyse Sommer

Tovah Feldshuh  in Irena's Vow
Tovah Feldshuh in Irena's Vow (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Same cast, same director, same production team, same heart-wrenching true story ——-and Tovah Feldshuh does indeed have plenty of audience members soaking tissues and hankies with tears. I know I was choked up all over again.

As was true on the Off-Broadway production, it's Feldshuh's ability to literally let down her hair and turn from an elderly lecturer to a gutsy young Polish girl and that young woman's heroic story that make this a more memorable and powerful experience than many a more sophisticated script. The production has moved quite comfortably into the Walter Kerr Theater, complete with Kevin Judge's simple platform set that accommodates the shifts from narration to action. The more intimate Baruch Center stage made it more natural to have just three actors instead of the dozen Jews that Irena hid right under the nose of her Nazi boss, but since this is so thoroughly Feldshuh's show, it doesn't really matter. In fact, it would work even if she'd done it as a solo, like Golda's Balcony.

The flashback structure once again relieves the audience of some of the tension with which this story bristles. The special emotional glow lent to the curtain call at the Baruch Center by the appearance of her daughter, Jeannie Opdyke Smith, as part of the curtain call, has happily been part of the Broadway show and will continue for as long as Ms. Smith, a Californian, remains in town. The anecdotal details about her mother, the Jews she sheltered, and her own family that are revealed during the audience questions she graciously fields, add to the sense of joy at witnessing the long-ranging effects of this profile in courage, nobility and perseverance

A film version of Irena's Vow is in the not too distant future. But movies being movies, who knows if Tovah Feldshuh will be in it and if she is, it's likely she'll be sharing the role with a younger actress. So don't wait for the movie. See it live now.

The show began performances at the Walter Kerr (319 W. 48th Street) 3/10/09 and had it's official Broadway opening 3/30/09.
Closing 6/28/09 after 21 previews and 105 regular performances.
The original review, also by Elyse Sommer

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.
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: Tovah Feldshuh (Irene Gut Opdyke), 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 11/02/08
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
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