Ethnic Theater - Jewish
Baruch Performing Arts Center, Manhattan
The excellent Tovah Feldshuh (award-winner for “Golda’s Balcony and other memorable shows) takes command of the New York stage once more. This time she holds forth on the broad stage at the Baruch Performing Arts Center (a facility of Baruch College, City University of New York).
Not only Tovah, but the character she portrays fills the space generously. Tovah plays Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic woman who rescued 12 Jews and hid them for several years, all during the German occupation of Poland. And she plays that role with humor, warmth, presence, authority.
Granted this is a familiar tale. “Irena’s Vow” is one more true Holocaust story. (Dan Gordon’s play is based on the history which Irena wrote in conjunction with Jennifer Armstrong.) Such rescues under iron-bound Nazi rule were rare, and certainly warrant the telling. Whenever history reveals such a Christian, that person should be honored. Irena joins a unique fellowship—the good Christian who followed his or her conscience at risk to life.
Yet each story evolves in its own way. Irena was a young nursing student when she was caught up in the web of war. The blonde, blue-eyed girl, who spoke German and looked Aryan, caught the Germans’ favorable attention and soon became housekeeper to one Major Eduard Rugemer, running his villa. The Jews, who had worked for her in a laundry, fell into her hands. When it came to her decision—betrayal or rescue—she did not hesitate. She hid them in a secret room carved out beneath the garden gazebo—managing to keep them alive through many moments of peril.
The story is not all drama and adventure. There are moments of humor, of irony, as in real life. Feldshuh gets all the nuances into the portrayal, as does playwright Gordon, shifting back and forth in time.
The piece is smoothly directed by Michael Parva, with a solid supporting cast. If there is any criticism to be made, it is that we can anticipate the play’s outcome—at least the outcome for Irena herself. The drama opens with her addressing an American high school in 1988, urging the students to observe love, not hatred, for all. And then she shares her tale. Clearly, Irena has survived.
The show had a special intensity the night we attended. Following the show, Feldshuh fielded a question-and-answer period, while introducing Irena’s daughter Janina, who was in the audience. (Irena herself died in 2002, having emigrated to the States after the war.) Janina brought a personal connection to the play, reminding us how important it was for the last generation of Holocaust survivors and rescuers to share their stories.
-- Irene Backalenick
Sept. 23, 2008