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Review - Irena's Vow: Tovah Feldshuh's Triumph

At the beginning of Dan Gordon's engrossing and uplifting drama, Irena's Vow, Tovah Feldshuh, as real life heroin Irena Gut Opdyke, is introduced to a high school auditorium filled with students to tell them about her experiences as a 19-year-old trying to hide 12 Jews in Nazi occupied Poland. At the end of the play she is reminding her young listeners that they are the last generation that will hear first hand accounts of the Holocaust's atrocities from those who survived it, and that it is their responsibility to never back away from confronting hatred.

What works so beautifully about Irena's Vow is that it is told with the simple story-telling elegance of an uncomplicated woman who was led by circumstance to do something extraordinary during extremely complicated times. The nine other actors play essentially one-note characters (and they play them very well, I might add) in this plot-driven ninety minute piece, which seems appropriate when you consider that the dramatization serves as a substitute for the way she describes the story for her young audience.

After the Catholic Irena is raped by a group of invading Russian soldiers at the outset of World War II ("That was my first date. My first kiss."), she is sent to work in a German munitions factory. There, her blonde hair and fluency in German attracts the attention of SS Major Eduard Rugemer (Thomas Ryan), who orders her sent to his barracks to be in charge of a dozen Jews working in his laundry room. (We only see three: expectant parents played by Gene Silvers and Maja Wampuszyc and Tracee Chimo as a seamstress around Irena's age.) By the time Rugemer decides to move to a large home and take Irena with him as his head housekeeper, she has already witnessed the systematic elimination of the Jews in progress and takes it upon herself to hide her 12 companions in the basement. After all, inside the home of an SS major is the last place someone would expect Jews to be hiding.

There are close calls, of course, and even a bit of humor, but when Irena must go to extreme measures to save the lives of her friends, her actions cause the eventual victors to see her as a Nazi sympathizer and she is made to suffer the consequences.

Michael Parva directs with a soft and sensitive touch. The drama is never didactic and though the play is light on character development the evening can be emotionally overwhelming; especially when Alex Koch's projections of period photographs add raw authenticity to the production.

But despite the fine accomplishments of her colleagues, the evening belongs to the mesmerizing Tovah Feldshuh, perhaps one of the New York stage's most underappreciated actors. Without trying to pass herself off as 19 she gives a wonderful sense of youthful disillusionment and rejuvenation to her portrayal, making Irena a heroic figure who is still going through the normal phases of growing up. As older Irena, she is a modest and soft-spoken woman who can turn to rage when hearing those who deny the Holocaust ever happened. During such moments, or when reacting to the piece's most tragic episodes with painful realism, you can truly forget that she's acting. But then, maybe she isn't.

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From This Author Kristin Salaky