[Editor’s note: the following is a slightly revised version of David Finkle review’s of the show’s Off-Broadway production last year.]
The multi-talented Tovah Feldshuh 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, which has transferred essentially intact to Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre.
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. For practical purposes, Gordon has reduced the number of Jews shown to only three: the married and eventually pregnant couple Lazar and Ida Hallar (Gene Silvers and Maja Wampuszyc) and the seamstress Fanka Silberman (Tracee Chimo).
Irena 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 as a housekeeper with the high-ranking German officer Eduard Rugemer (Thomas Ryan).
Among the most persuasive scenes Gordon includes are the several occasions in which local SS oficer, 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.
While there is a broad streak of the dramatically expected here — for example, the sexual advances Rugemer eventually makes to Irena — Gordon’s play retains its force 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 for Michael Parva’s sensitive direction of the entire cast, even if the intrepid Feldshuh — who looks nothing like the blonde and delicate Irena shown on Alex Koch’s projections — stresses the script’s comic moments more than necessary. But ultimately, Irena’s guts are the thing, and Feldshuh has that part of this heroine’s personality down pat.