Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 29, 2009
Irena's Vow a new play by Dan Gordon. Directed by Michael Parva. Scenic design by Kevin Judge. Costume design by Astrid Brucker. Lighting design by David Castaneda. Projection design by Alex Koch. Original music and sound design by Quentin Chiappetta. Wig and hair design by Leah J. Loukas. Cast: Tovah Feldshuh, with Sandi Carrolll, Tracee Chimo, Steven Hauck, Scott Klavan, Peter Reznikoff, Thomas Ryan, Gene Silvers, John Stanisci, Maja C. Wampuszyc.
Go ahead, say it. The glittering-actress treatment is wrong for serious World War II sagas in general. And it’s unremittingly absurd when the subject is a Polish-Catholic woman in occupied Poland who saved 13 Jews from extermination by hiding them in the cellar of a particularly powerful Nazi. No, for this you need reverence, defiance, and fire!
The star, the playwright, and the director (Michael Parva) ensure you get all those - wrapped in a stunningly celebratory salute to the woman who carries the play on her shoulders for 90 unstartling yet thrill-filled minutes. Even if you half expect Feldshuh to arrive for her curtain call in pristine white couture befitting a Jerry Herman heroine, it’s tough to question the underlying methodology: Irena Gut Opdyke was worth cheering for what she did, and Feldshuh - if in an entirely different way - is as well for bringing this unsung woman to sumptuous theatrical life.
Explaining exactly what Feldshuh does isn’t easy, because she does everything. She begins the play in 1988, when Irena was about 70 (she died just a few years ago), and commands the audience with an unblemished and embracing grandmotherly air. As she recalls her life and flashes back to Poland, the years fall away as she becomes a young innocent who’s violated by the Nazis and thrust into a life of guile (and worse) to keep the promise she made to God to preserve life at every opportunity. (Her turning point: when she witnessed the Nazis murder both a woman and her baby.)
Even when she’s required to speechify - which she frequently is - Feldshuh grants the words importance without consciously elevating them to banner headlines. She so taps into Irena’s soul that she brings a freshness to the dramatic clichés that Gordon doesn’t pretend to avoid in his script; as the writing is a combination of hagiography and thesis-cold research, this can’t be easy. But Feldshuh never lectures, scolds, or preaches through her portrayal. She immerses herself in Irena’s choices, carefree and life-threatening alike, to create a vivid and honest portrait of a woman of incredible strength and determination.
Against all odds, Irena’s Vow is not a one-woman show like Feldshuh’s last Broadway tour-de-force, Golda’s Balcony. Perhaps the most visibly gleaming of the nine other actors are Thomas Ryan, complex and compelling as the secretly goodhearted major Irena fools, and John Stanisci, darkly imposing as the venom-tongued Nazi officer who’s always half a step away from discovering Irena’s secret. But Steven Hauck also brings a gentle likeability to another servant Irena befriends, and Maja C. Wampuszyc, Gene Silvers, and Tracee Chimo are understatedly urgent as three representative Jews under Irena’s protection.
The story is gripping, no doubt. Irena’s close calls while hiding the refugees, especially during two different parties (one of which is being held while a hidden Jewish couple’s baby is being born!), and the major’s occasional glances against her defenses, are prime theatre, well earning the chills and gasps they elicit. Is this outstanding composition? No. Does this tread any identifiably new territory? No. But is this only as good as it has to be? No - it's noticeably, if not overwhelmingly, better. That’s no small accomplishment for a play that often seems to bask in platinum-plated shamelessness as Schindler’s List’s long-lost fraternal twin.
And for better or worse, it would all be unthinkable without Feldshuh. She doesn’t just play the role, since the role - as written - can’t be played in the traditional sense. It must be transformed, molded into a conduit for the actress’s inner radiance so that the audience can’t tell the difference between loving Irena and loving the woman playing her. It’s the ultimate trick of the theatre - stage presence - and it cannot be taught. Feldshuh never tries, but she gives you an invaluable lesson in what separates the true stars from merely the good (or even great) actresses.
In doing so, Feldshuh makes the potentially unmemorable Irena’s Vow into a truly unforgettable fusion of character and charisma - an event of the kind we can never see too often. It’s easy to see why this show enjoyed a much-extended Off-Broadway run at the Baruch Performing Arts Center earlier this season, and it would be unsurprising - and unconcerning - if it repeated that feat on Broadway. Irena and Feldshuh deserve and demand nothing less.