Sunday, April 5, 2009

Miraculous Tale

Irena’s Vow
Written by Dan Gordon
Directed by Michael Parva
Starring Tovah Feldshuh, Sandi Carroll, Tracee Chimo, Steven Hauck, Scott Klavan, Peter Reznikoff, Thomas Ryan, Gene Silvers, John Stanisci, Maja C. Wampuszyc

Performances from March 10, 2009
Walter Kerr Theater
219 West 48th Street

Ryan, Feldshuh and Stanisci in Irena's Vow
(photo: Carol Rosegg)
Some criticism leveled at Steven Spielberg’s magnificent Holocaust film Schindler’s List decried its optimism—as if a film that showed the survival of even a handful of Jews in the midst of the systematic killing of millions was incorrect or revisionist.

Since we know what really happened during World War II, the survival of any Jews (or homosexuals, gypsies or other undesirables) thanks to Good Samaritans was a rare occurrence to be celebrated and commemorated. Those are the stories we want to hear: that, even amid mass murder and wholesale butchery, ordinary people tried to help, however seemingly inconsequential in the long run.

In a similar vein, Dan Gordon’s play Irena’s Vow recounts the remarkable true story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic woman who was able to hide and save a dozen (later 13) condemned Jews in the basement of the local German major’s home, where she worked as head housekeeper. This gripping tale is a reminder of human goodness even when seemingly overwhelmed by evil.

Ninety minutes long and with no intermission, Irena’s Vow is definitely not an exhaustive epic about the unimaginable suffering during the Holocaust. Rather, this simple story of one woman’s courage in the face of impossible odds is small in scale, if not in importance, when compared to the war’s horror.

While Gordon is to be commended for homing in on this specific narrative, he too often goes for the big effect, gumming up the works with gratuitous platitudes. His schematic framing device (Irena recounting her exploits to a classroom, circa 1988) and the overdone ending (taking place in Jerusalem at the bar mitzvah of the son of the child born to a couple in Irena’s hideout) reach to make sweeping pronouncements that are at odds with our heroine’s pure saintliness.

The tone is also surprisingly jocular, as Gordon writes laugh lines in a desperate bid to interrupt the tragic atmosphere: one of these unnecessary “jokes” has Irena letting the audience know that, while her boss hosts a party of Gestapo officials upstairs, her Jews are—ha, ha—hiding below. These unwanted nudges to the ribs show a playwright unsure how to handle his absorbing material.

The manipulation on display also includes a crass scene where Irena insists that the young couple in hiding not abort their baby, since it goes against her Catholic faith—even though the newborn’s first cry would mean the death of everybody’s safe haven. She then decides to get the requested implements for the procedure, until the mother-to-be herself decides to keep the baby. It’s not that the scene doesn’t ring true—it’s certainly dramatic enough—but Gordon milks it for sentimentality instead of honest truth.

Still, with all its flaws, Irena’s Vow effectively registers as another reminder to those who might have forgotten history or don’t want to remember what happened. Michael Parva directs with an unfussy sense of drama, with Kevin Judge’s highly evocative unit set supplemented by Alex Koch’s judiciously chosen back wall projections. David Castaneda’s lighting design performs dramatic wonders that far outstrip Gordon’s overreaching writing.

The exemplary supporting cast features standout Thomas Ryan as Irena’s Nazi boss, a tricky role that’s never reduced to caricature. And Tovah Feldshuh breathes marvelous life into Irena, an ordinary person who did what she felt was right. Feldshuh’s accent, movements and entire body language coalesce to persuade us that we are watching Irena herself recreate her own miraculous tale of courage and survival.

originally posted on

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