by Dan Gordon
Directed by Michael Parva
Starring Tovah Feldshuh
Walter Kerr Theatre / 219 West 48th Street / (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

It’s almost unfair to have to review a play like Irena’s Vow, because you’re forced to try separating what it’s about, the story it tells, from how artfully it’s rendered. And what it’s about is a true story that happened during the Holocaust.

                  In 1939, Irena Gut Opdyke, a young Catholic woman in Nazi-occupied Poland found herself unwitting witness to the systematic extermination of Jews on a public street in a neighboring town to her own, worse still because there was nothing she could do to intervene without herself getting killed; and in that moment of horror vowed that she would never find herself that passive again, that she would never let herself be complicit in silence again. And that resolve would soon be tested, for having been assigned to supervise a laundry work detail, she was put in charge of 11 Jews. Her efficiency caught the eye of a Nazi Major, who engaged her as his personal housekeeper. His house was a big one with a big storage cellar (and, Irena would discover later, a hidden passageway to a hidden underground shelter). She accepted both the post and the opportunity it presented her to hide the 11 Jews. Yes, that’s right. Hide 11 Jews in the basement of a Nazi military official.

                  As dramatized by veteran screenwriter Dan Gordon, the story is spun out over 90 intermissionless minutes with economic efficiency, but not a lot of elegance. Rather like a Lifetime network movie, it dutifully hits its marks, the dialogue functional and melodrama-standard, very little in the way of wit. And rather like a Lifetime network movie on an urgent enough topic, the human drama being played out has the power to override foursquare writing, and move you because it’s impossible not to be moved by such an incredible story of human triumph. I’m not saying economic efficiency is to be sneezed at; that kind of craftsmanship can be hard won and finely honed…but it’s a naked and graceless thing without verbal richness and idiosyncratic characterization.

                  In the production’s favor, Tovah Feldshuh plays Irena, starting as an older woman addressing a classroom, then flashing back to the past. According to an interview, the play was originally conceived for two actresses at two different ages to play Irena, but director Michael Parva wanted to exploit the poetic nature of theatre to see if one actress could encompass it all—and thank goodness he did, for how foursquare would the script be without that?—and Ms. Feldshuh is more than up to the challenge.

                  Beyond this poetic inspiration, Mr. Parva’s production is alas as seemingly unvarnished and workmanlike as the script, with a supporting cast that is likewise unsurprising, each delivering a recognizable archetype in a fairly stock manner, none popping out as a memorably nuanced, unique person.

                  But the story itself is HUGELY memorable, with some phenomenal real-life twists and turns (the night I attended, the now-late Irena’s grown daughter appeared after the curtain call to answer questions and relate subsequent developments—events that occurred after the historical time-frame covered by the play—that make the story doubly amazing), and even told foursquarely it cannot fail to be interesting or deeply touching.

                  So one cannot dismiss Irena’s Vow out of hand, and one might even recommend it, depending upon what the particular audience member, or audience group, may be looking for, out of such an evening.

                  As I say, you don’t really get to review something like Irena’s Vow so much as report on it, assess its elements as best you can, and then step back, to let the potential witness, much like Irena herself, make her own choice…

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