Irena's Vow -- Theater Review

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NEW YORK -- True-life Holocaust tales are nearly as ubiquitous onstage as they are in cinema, but "Irena's Vow" overcomes any weariness of the subject matter with an amazing and little-known story so engrossing it makes "The Diary of Anne Frank" seem tame.

Although this drama by Dan Gordon -- screenwriter of such films as "The Hurricane" and "Wyatt Earp" -- has some unfortunately clumsy dramaturgy, the sheer power of its narrative and the superb performance by Tovah Feldshuh in the title role well overcome any flaws.

The play relates the adventures of Irena Gut Opdyke, a young Polish-Catholic forced to serve as a housekeeper for Maj. Rugemer (Thomas Ryan), a German military officer stationed in occupied Poland. Entrusted with running his household, she amazingly managed to hide 12 Jewish refugees in the basement for several years, until the end of the war.

The elderly major eventually discovered the ruse, and as the price for keeping her secret forced his beautiful young servant into becoming his mistress.

The play takes the form of a flashback related by the elderly Irena to an audience of high school students. While the concept works well enough, the playwright relies far too much on narration by the central character, with the result that the evening too often feels like a lecture than a fleshed-out drama.

Another problem is that, other than Irena and the German major, the characters are not particularly fleshed out. And no doubt for budgetary reasons, the group of Jewish hideaways has been reduced, onstage at least, to a mere trio.

Still, there's no denying the inherent power of the story, which thankfully is related with generous doses of tension-relieving humor. And while Feldshuh is technically too old for the role -- Irena was in her early 20s during the time in which the play takes place -- she overcomes that obstacle with a fierce, fully lived-in performance. She's well supported by Ryan, who makes the major a surprisingly sympathetic figure.

At the reviewed performance, Opdyke's real-life daughter came onstage after the curtain calls and took questions from audience members clearly moved by what they had just seen.

Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Cast: Tovah Feldshuh, Sandi Carroll, Tracee Chimo, Steven Hauck, Scott Klavan, Peter Reznikoff, Thomas Ryan, Gene Silvers, John Stanisci, Maja C. Wampuszyc
Playwright: Dan Gordon
Director: Michael Parva
Set designer: Kevin Judge
Costume designer: Astrid Brucker
Lighting designer: David Castaneda
Projection designer: Alex Koch
Original music/sound designer: Quentin Chiappetta
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