Sandi Carroll, Tracee Chimo, Tovah Feldshuh, Steven Hauck, Scott Klavan, Peter Reznikoff, Thomas Ryan, Gene Silvers, John Stanisci, Maja C. Wampuszyc
Plays about the Holocaust are difficult to critique.
When considering Irena’s Vow, Dan Gordon’s Broadway play based on the true story of Irena Gut Opdyke, it’s impossible to say the playwright isn’t brimming with good intentions. At its core is the obligatory “never forget” message all Holocaust dramas must include (a worthy one at that).
Gordon’s means of telling Irena’s heroic story (she saved twelve lives during the Holocaust), however, are ultimately its failing.
In a play like this, it takes less than five minutes to discern what the moral of the story will be.
It’s one we’ve heard countless times before, and it’d take a whole lot of dramatic invention to truly turn what is essentially a showcase for its star, the excellent Tovah Feldshuh, into something that truly crackles beneath its by-the-numbers surface.
In framing the story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic woman who aided twelve persecuted Jews in escaping Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, playwright Gordon positions Irena as the narrator of her own story. At the beginning of the play, she’s an old woman speaking to a group of American high school students. She begins by telling her story forthrightly. As the dramatic moments crescendo, she begins to inhabit the story, enacting scenes as her younger self, a device which ultimately detracts from the forward motion of the play.
Opdyke certainly had a dramatic life. Abducted by the Russians and raped, she escaped only to be captured again, sent to work as a seamstress before being brought to a more comfortable job as housekeeper for a German officer, Major Rugemer, under whose roof she hid twelve Jews (some of whom were her former coworkers). Over the course of several years, she smuggled them food and helped to deflect blackmail plots directed at the Major. Eventually the Major discovered several of the hidden Jews, allowing them to remain under his roof only if Irena would become his mistress (a proposal she accepted, never revealing the details to her friends).
It’s clear that there is fodder for many a dramatic scene in Irena’s story, but it’s also clear that Dan Gordon, who’s mostly worked as a screenwriter, hasn’t quite taken the right approach to the material, which doesn’t inherently cry out for dramatization to begin with (it would at the very least make a better movie). Besides for its problematically predictable ending, the device of allowing Irena to tell her own story undercuts the playwright’s occasional attempts at letting her story speak for itself.
Instead of a full-bodied play, we get a product that better resembles a one-woman show with dramatic interludes (after all, Ms. Feldshuh also occasionally switches between characters, as when enacting several scenes between Irena and various Nazis).
Tovah Feldshuh’s performance is truly the glue that holds the play together and keeps things from descending into total didacticism. Though the text may not be innately satisfying, her performance is one of extreme commitment. She adeptly captures Irena’s transition from girl to woman. In her old age she’s appropriately wistful. As a young woman she’s full of wide-eyed conviction. And in handling the high-voltage subject matter of the play, which includes talk of rape, infanticide, coerced adultery, and abortion, Feldshuh must be given due credit for always making Irena’s decisions seem complex and considered, no easy task for an actress.
All the while, when viewed against the textured portrayal of Irena, the rest of the cast pales in comparison. Though Thomas Ryan as Major Rugemer gets several flashy scenes which he plays with an appropriate mix of villainy and pathos, the three Jews which Gordon chooses to highlight amongst the twelve that Opdyke saved seem more like cardboard cutouts than full-blooded characters.
When Franka, one of the more soft-spoken of the twelve, is forced to leave Irena, she wells up with tears. But, because we’ve never really gotten to see how the two forged a connection in the first place (beyond what Irena’s told us and several quick group scenes), it’s impossible for us to sympathize, though we know, because the play tells us so, that we should.
This is the general quality that the play exudes – one of genuine sentiment shoehorned into a formulaic package. Cloying music by Quentin Chiapetta only enhances the feelings of subtle manipulation that lurks behind Michael Parva’s visually bare-bones production. His score cues emotional responses where the script should be allowed to speak for itself.
What’s surprising is that, despite its numerous detractions, there are truly heartbreaking moments in Irena’s Vow. It’s even possible to leave the play in tears because of the tremendous story at hand. But good stories do not necessarily make good plays. I left the theatre feeling inspired by the story at hand. In looking back at the evening that produced that effect, however, I couldn’t help but feel I’d been lectured to rather than invited to explore what could have been fleshed out to be a truly dynamic group of characters in complicated situations.