nytheatre.com review by Robin Rothstein
September 20, 2008
Polish Catholic Irena Gut Opdyke put a metaphorical "Do Not Disturb" sign over her memories until the day she received a phone call from someone taking a survey asking people if they believed the Holocaust really happened. It is thanks to that phone call that this courageous gentile woman, who would receive Israel's Medal of Honor and the title of Righteous Among Nations, began revealing her remarkable true story to the world, a story that is the inspiration for the somewhat uneven, but deeply affecting new drama, Irena's Vow.
It is 1988 and an unseen teacher introduces the kindly Irena to his high school class. Soon there will be no living witnesses of the Holocaust, so Irena now reaches out to young people to tell them her story. As she begins recounting her experience, we springboard back to German-occupied Poland during World War II where Irena, who by this point has already suffered at the hands of the Russians, is working in a munitions plant in a labor camp. When Irena one day faints on the job, Major Rugemer, a highly regarded SS officer, arranges to have her transferred to a mess hall. Rugemer then requisitions Irena to be his housekeeper where she supervises a laundry staffed by Jews, whom she quickly befriends. When Irena hears that all the Jews will be transported to a death camp, she knows this is not a rumor—she has already witnessed the murders of innocent Jews right before her eyes who she was too frightened to try and save. So she vows to God never to stand by and do nothing again, and at great risk hides and secretly protects for the next two years these 12 Jewish refugees in the safest place she can find—the cellar of Major Rugemer's villa.
Tovah Feldshuh plays Irena with the same strength, humor, and sensitivity that earned her high praise for her tour de force performance as Golda Meir in Golda's Balcony, though in Irena's Vow it sometimes feels as though Feldshuh is coasting more on her well-honed ability to deliver lines with the cadence of a Borscht Belt comic rather than investing herself authentically in the character. However, as the play's dramatic tension increases, Feldshuh for the most part leaves this safety net behind and commits to Irena's harrowing journey as if it were happening then and there, grabbing you by your heart with a fierceness and urgency that does not yield. Thomas Ryan as Major Rugemer is gripping, infusing his role with a layered complexity that leaves you feeling alternately repulsed and empathetic towards him. Ryan and Feldshuh together crackle with chemistry and their scenes are among the best in the play. The rest of the company play their roles with energy, though some members of the cast lack seasoning, so there are inconsistencies with accents and not all the characters come across as fully fleshed out.
Playwright Dan Gordon has created a moving drama here with nice touches of humor and suspense. The play deserves a more provocative point of entry, though, than the classroom conceit he provides. As it stands, the first 20 to 30 minutes or so feel somewhat flat, lacking a sense of what's at stake for Irena as she begins to re-embark on this painful journey. Michael Parva directs with an efficient hand and does a nice job keeping the pace moving and all of the production elements in synch, though he could do with some improvement with regard to bringing out more evolved performances from some of the supporting cast.
Design-wise, this is a very handsome production. Kevin Judge's functional and symbolic scenic design makes effective use of levels to distinguish between different locations, and his integration of lines in floorboards, crates, and ceiling beams provides a subliminal reminder of the emotional and literal prison that all of the characters are in. Astrid Brucker's costumes feel true to the era and setting, although her design, most particularly with respect to the Jewish characters who have been in hiding, could do with some more grittiness over the course of the play. Lighting designer David Castenada washes the stage with varying hues of moody darkness, imbuing the world of the play with a sense of isolation and foreboding. His talents especially shine in a scene where he uses light to create the effect of scattered shards from a shattered window. Quentin Chiappetta's sharp sound design also enhances the play's tense atmosphere, especially his unapologetically loud gunshots, which evoke the kind of unsettling images that make your entire being recoil. Chiappetta is also the composer of a series of somber interludes that underscore several of the play's monologues and scenes. Though lovely compositions, these strains of piano and violin have a tendency to feel a bit heavy-handed and soap-operatic after a while, seeming to mainly serve as a device to further intensify our emotions. Alex Koch's harrowing black and white projections shown throughout the play feel similarly superfluous. This story is already about such a moving subject that stands on its own that these sorts of elements, while classy, ultimately come off as unnecessary schmaltz.
Nitpicking aside, Irena's Vow is a worthy and important play that should be seen. At a brief talkback following the performance I attended, Feldshuh indicated that the team behind the show hopes to have the opportunity to take it to Broadway, and given Irena Gut Opdyke's track record of overcoming the greatest odds and managing to do the improbable, Broadway is probably not out of reach.