Yes, the Holocaust did happen. Yes, it was horrific. And yes, there is first hand proof on stage at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Irena’s Vow, starring Tovah Feldshuh is based on the true life story of one humble yet heroic Polish Catholic girl, Irena Gut Opdyke, who had to make some very difficult choices during WW II in Poland in order to save the lives of some Jews. Twelve, to be exact.
Irena was there. She witnessed the murders and the hangings. Felt the danger. Felt the anger. Was herself raped, multiple times. But most importantly, she survived to tell her very moving and powerful story that Don Gordon has dramatized into a ninety minute tribute to her strength, courage, and love of the human spirit so that it may never happen again.
Told in flashback, and sensitively directed by Michael Parva, we first see Irena speaking at a high school. With the simple act of letting her hair down she becomes the young Irena of the past and we are invited to share in her somewhat predictable but always fascinating and gripping tale.
How she was forced into becoming the housekeeper and then whore of one of the most highest ranking German Officers, Major Rugemer (Thomas Ryan) who discovers her secret and accepts not to reveal it if she will love him.
How she vowed to help save lives. How it was her mission from God.
How she miraculously hid twelve Jews in the cellar of the Major’s villa, here represented by only three people – husband and wife, Lazar (Gene Silvers) and Ida (Maja C.Wampuszyc) Hallar and seamstress Franka Silberman (Tracee Chimo). It is problematic having only three with so many references to the twelve. It almost borders on the ridiculous as they provide banquet like dinners for the Major and with the birth of a baby boy where screams of labor are covered over by playing Wagner on the gramophone.
How she keeps narrowly escaping the eagle eye of Sturmbannfuhrer Rokita (John Stanisci) who keeps wanting to search the premises for the Jews that he believes are there. In one very funny episode she encounters Rokita being serviced by a Fraulein in the gazebo where her secret cache of Jews is hidden below. Miss Feldshuh sure knows how to get a laugh, bringing warmth and humor to the part.
It’s a game of cat and mouse where we know what the outcome will be but it is very interesting getting to the denouement. It is the sly and inspirational performance of Tovah Feldshuh that holds all these fragile, episodic pieces together which leaves us with a lump in our throat, an ache in our heart and a tear in our eye.
After the performance I attended, the daughter of Irena spoke and took questions from the audience. Everyone stayed. It was an incredible experience and quite compelling. Perhaps, more so than the play itself. www.irenasvow.com