Sunday, April 26, 2009

Tovah as Irena

The other evening I went to the Walter Kerr Theatre to see Irena's Vow, which transferred to Broadway after playing downtown at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. Tovah Feldshuh's dynamic turn as the unlikely heroine Irena Gut Opdyke is one of the biggest star turns I've seen all season and the reason for the Broadway transfer. Tovah is Irena as an elderly woman and in a drop of a hairpin, is Irena as a teenager. Only onstage could an actress of her incredible range and formidable talent make such a vivid and believable transformation, finding such rich layering to the characterization without ever once losing her endless warmth.

The story of the Polish Catholic housekeeper who successfully hid 12 Jews in the basement of her Nazi employer is a remarkable one, offering a moving portrait of an incredible human being. Irena was born and raised in Poland, and she endured unspeakable cruelties when the Russians made their way into her town. She was later forced to work for the Germans throughout the course of the war, finding herself witnessing atrocities first-hand and feeling helpless to do anything about it. She saves her friends (as she lovingly refers to them all evening) because she once witnessed a newborn baby smashed on the pavement and its mother shot by a Nazi soldier. Finding herself unable to do anything in that moment, she made a vow to herself that she would do whatever she could to save a person's life, which brings us to the play at hand.

The memory play is established as one of Irena's classroom lectures from the late 80s interspersed with a linear flashback recounting her experiences. When Feldshuh talks directly to us, the audience, as her class, is the piece at its most intimate and most riveting. Her sincere portrayal is worthy of many award accolades and nominations from the various parties, commanding the stage for the entire evening. However, the script leaves some to be desired. The play clocks in at an intermissionless ninety minutes, with a questionable structure and an undeniable lack of dimension in the supporting characters. Most frustratingly, the character of Irena's Nazi employer, a most fascinating character, was only marginally given more scope than the rest. There are too many moments when the play feels a bit like paint by numbers history splashed out onstage. Careful rewrites and examining of characters could serve to flesh out the more two-dimensional moments in the play.

However, when it is Irena narrating the story to us, impersonating various characters with such vivid clarity and guiding the audience through the plot that the play finds some strength. It is at these moments that it seems that the story would be best served as a one woman solo show. The script as is would open well into a television movie.

Following the curtain call, Feldshuh took a moment to make a curtain speech on behalf of BC/EFA and also to remind us that it was William Shakespeare's birthday, whom she quoted before introducing Irena's daughter, Janina, who offers a brief question and answer period after most if not all performances. It was during this session we heard incredible stories of what became of Major Rugemer, Irena's life in the US and her reunion with her sisters after about forty years separation from the war.

Irena's Vow is worth seeing for two reasons: its story and its leading lady, giving a transcendent star turn in a play that could be and should be much better than it is. In spite of its flaws, the story still captivates and I could not help but be fascinated with the plot unfolding. There was scarcely a dry eye in the house by the time of the play's conclusion, one celebrating the powers of forgiveness and redemption.

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