'Irena's Vow'


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 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 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 more 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. (partialdiff)