BOTTOM LINE: This is a gripping story, told through the eyes of one woman, that explores the lives of a group of people in Poland during the Holocaust by including feelings of hope, peace, and ultimately humanity.
I’m all for a spectacle-filled musical or a celebrity-laden comedy but if there is one Broadway show to move to the top of your “to-do” list, let it be Irena’s Vow. What’s that you say? A Holocaust play is too serious for you? When you spend a night out on the town you want to laugh and leave the theatre happy and feeling uplifted? Then I say again, see Irena’s Vow (although I can’t guarantee that you won’t cry a little too). This play, based on real life events, not only entertains but educates.
Playwright Dan Gordon adapted for the stage the life of unsung hero, Irena Gut Opdyke (Tovah Feldshuh) who saved the lives of 12 Jews by hiding them under the nose of German officer, Major Rugemer (Thomas Ryan), for whom she was a live-in maid. It's a little known story but one that represents the many unknown silent heroes who sheltered Jews during Hitler’s rule and the German occupation. In Opdyke’s case, her heroism was unknown to even her own family until one day when she received a telephone call from a student taking a survey about how he believed the Holocaust was a hoax.
The play begins with Irena sharing her story of the telephone call with an invisible group of young students (represented by the audience). She shares with the students how she was determined to leave that part of her life behind when she came to America until the shock of hearing this young man deny its existence sent her on a new-found mission. Then, in flashback fashion, Feldshuh transforms from an older woman, who is older than she cares to admit, back to that beautiful, young, 17-year-old Catholic girl in Poland. She tells of her rape by nine Russian soldiers and of a traumatic incident where she witnessed a Nazi soldier brutally murder a Jewish baby right before her eyes. It was in that moment that she vowed to never let another Jewish child die if she could help it. The story continues with Irena frequently breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly, which is where many of Gordon’s welcome moments of levity are found. Director Michael Parva guides these moments of transition seamlessly and with specificity.
Feldshuh is riveting as Irena. She captures the youth and innocence of a 17-year-old girl with a wisdom beyond her years. She embodies her physically as well as emotionally. With a keen awareness of the human spirit and perfect timing, she switches back and forth between weighty moments of tension and honest moments of wit and humor with precision. At the moment when you think you might sob out loud she turns on a dime and, with utmost sincerity, delivers a line in such a way that you laugh out loud instead. Ryan’s portrayal of the German Major is surprisingly sympathetic. Other standouts include Steven Hauck as the dutiful butler but even more dutiful friend Herr Shultz, John Stanisci as the cocky Rokita, and Scott Klavan who is magnetic as The Visitor before he even opens his mouth.
Irena’s Vow is a play of courage, fear, humor, tears and most of all hope. Though my friend and I were in tears during curtain call we both walked out of the theatre with smiles on our faces and laughter in our hearts. When asked what he thought about the play by a reporter outside the theatre, my friend emphatically replied “It was so funny!” then quickly added, “Oh, that probably sounds really strange to say about a play about the Holocaust.” Well, maybe, except that is what makes Irena’s Vow so unique, engaging and so true to the human spirit. Until now, most tales of this horrific time in history were very heavy, melancholy, and required a stiff drink and a good night’s sleep to get over. They are often stories that are so sad that one doesn’t want to think too much about it again, much like how Opdyke at one time yearned to forget her own story. The tremendous achievement of playwright Dan Gordon is that he creates a story that you don’t want to get over or forget but rather one that you want to remember over and over again. And that is what will help ensure that we, and future generations, will never forget.
(Irena’s Vow plays at The Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street through September 6th. Performance times are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $41 - $98. Student Rush: $25 tickets (cash only) available at the box office on the day of each performance, beginning when the box office opens, 2 per valid student ID. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. Go to www.telecharge.com or visit www.irenasvow.com for tickets and info.)