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Irena's Vow

Tovah Feldshuh plays a gutsy Holocaust heroine in Dan Gordon's powerful if predictable drama. logo
Tovah Feldshuh in Irena's Vow
(© Carol Rosegg)
The multi-talented Tovah Feldshuh -- yes, she still does cartwheels -- is best known onstage for playing the Jewish title characters in Yentl and Golda's Balcony and offstage for promoting Judaism as one of her abiding causes. So it's hardly surprising that she's put her abilities to muted but determined good use as the quietly heroic, Polish Catholic Irena Gut Opdyke in Dan Gordon's powerful if predictable Irena's Vow, now at the Baruch Center for the Performing Arts.

In the play, for which Gordon has taken the accounts Irena made about her unprepossessing derring-do after hearing the existence of the Holocaust denied, Irena looks back on, and then re-experiences, the tense time she spent saving the lives of 12 Jews during the Holocaust -- and, in the process, helping to bring a 13th life into being. She was just 19 when World War II began, and soon became one of the millions of pawns pushed around her native land by the invading Russians who captured and raped her, and then by the Germans who shunted her into forced labor.

It was her relatively good fortune that her facility in German and her good looks landed her a position with SS officer Eduard Rugemer (Thomas Ryan), a man in his 60s more concerned with his own survival than with National Socialist tenets. Because Irena became his house manager, she was able to hide a dozen doomed Jews in his cellar for two years. Gordon also includes the several occasions on which Rugemer's superior, Strumbannfuher Rokita (John Stanisci), threatened to search the villa premises on tips that Jews were clandestinely lodged there, and depicts Irena's quick-witted responses to those threats, one in particular when Rokita was dallying with a woman in the gazebo directly over the secret room where the Jews were housed.

If there's one significant alteration in the play, it's that for the purposes of his drama (which has several ironically humorous moments), Gordon has reduced the number of Jews shown to three: the married and eventually pregnant couple Lazar and Ida Hallar (Gene Silvers, Maja Wampuszyc) and the seamstress Fanka Silberman (Tracee Chimo). And while there is a broad streak of the dramatically predictable here -- for example, the sexual advances Major Rugemer eventually makes to Irena -- Gordon's play retains its power because every report comparable to Irena's remarkable vow remains a welcome reminder of how often forces for good prevail over evil. There's also something irresistibly gripping about the succession of chilling sequences where it looks as if the wolf is about to charge through the door and is cleverly diverted.

There's much to be said, too, for Michael Parva's sensitively harsh and harshly sensitive direction of the cast. And although the intrepid Feldshuh looks nothing like the blond and delicate Irena shown on Alex Koch's projections, it ultimately doesn't matter. Irena's guts are the thing, and Feldshuh has that down.

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