nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 1, 2009
The story of Irena Gut Opdyke, which is told in the new Broadway play Irena's Vow, is important and memorable and inspiring. Gut was a Polish Catholic woman studying to be a nurse at the time of World War II. She first was captured by Russian troops and forced to work for them in Eastern Poland; and then after she escaped she was captured by the Germans and put to work first in a munitions factory and then in the household of Major Eduard Rugemer, who was the chief SS officer in the region.
In the play, Irena is initially put in charge of managing the Jews who work essentially as slave laborers in the laundry. Rugemer's liking for Irena leads to her "promotion" as his housekeeper. She befriends the 11 Jews, and when she overhears a conversation between Major Rugemer and Sturmbannfuhrer Rokita indicating that all Jews in the area will be exterminated by a certain date, she decides she must take action to save their lives.
I will leave it to you to discover how this young woman managed to rescue her friends and keep them alive and safe until the end of the war. (See the play or read the story, here.) Irena's Vow is a story of heroism and faith, of resourcefulness and courage and compassion. The vow noted in the title is one that Irena makes after witnessing a particularly horrifying murder of a mother and her baby: she resolves that if she ever can take action to save a life, she will; that if she can take action against evil, then she must. Near the end of the play, Irena tells the audience "You are the last generation who will hear from a living witness to the Holocaust...you have a responsibility...every time you meet hatred, you must stand up against it. And only that way, can this never happen again."
So the message of Irena's Vow is vital and one that we must embrace. How I wish that this play by Dan Gordon lived up more fully to its subject! Alas, the script itself is serviceable and nothing more: Gordon has not seemed able to find a consistent style for this piece, which wavers unsteadily between black black comedy and gripping melodrama and mostly feels like a one-woman play onto which some additional roles have been grafted. Tovah Feldshuh, as committed and oversized a theatrical presence as ever in the role of Irena, is probably at her best in the portions of the show that embrace the solo performance ethos: she bonds with the audience with great warmth as she narrates her tale to us (the play's framing concept is that Irena is lecturing at a high school in 1988, with the audience her students). And in a few scenes where she portrays both Irena and other characters (a house full of storm troopers, for example), the drama is urgent and palpable.
Half a dozen underwritten characters, plus some smaller cameos, are assigned here to nine actors, only two of whom really have an opportunity to make much of an impression. (Both do good work within the limitations of the script—Thomas Ryan as Rugemer and Steven Hauck as Herr Schultz, another of Rugemer's servants who befriends Irena.) The dozen Jews who are hidden by Irena are represented by actors who play three of them, an odd economy; Gordon seems to go out of his way to present them as needy rather than noble.
Michael Parva's direction is fluid. The most interesting design element is Alex Koch's projections, which use photographs to evoke time and place to great effect.
After the performance, Feldshuh announced to the audience that Irena Gut Opdyke's daughter would come out and participate in a brief talkback discussion. This proved to be the highlight of the afternoon; I don't know how frequent an occurrence this is, but the stories Jeannie Opdyke Smith shared with us reinforced the richly humanistic message of the play we'd just seen with stunning urgency.