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picture - Irena's VowTheater Review

by William Gooch

published April 3, 2009


Irena’s Vow

now playing on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theater


Would you harbor me?

 Would I harbor you?

Would you harbor me?

Would I harbor you?

Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a heretic, convict, or spy?

Would you harbor a runaway woman or child, a poet, a prophet, a king?

Would you harbor an exile or a refugee, a person living with AIDS?

Would you harbor a Tubman, a Garret, a Truth, a fugitive or a slave?

Would you harbor a Haitian, Korean, or Czech, a lesbian or a gay?

Would you harbor me?

Would I harbor you?

                           — Sweet Honey in the Rock


Maya Angelou once said that no serious endeavor could be done consistently without courage. In Dan Gordon’s tour-de-force Irena’s Vow, Irena Gut Opdyke (Tovah Feldshuh) consistently finds the courage and love required to harbor prime targets for Nazi annihilation. Gordon’s true-to-life drama details the determination of a young Polish housekeeper, who in spite of tremendous odds, miraculously harbored 13 Jews in the cellar of her Nazi employer’s home during Poland’s Nazi occupation.


picture - Irena's VowDan Gordon has written a fine work that not only shows the horrors of anti-Semitism and genocide in Nazi-controlled Poland, but also illuminates the possibilities for forgiveness and reconciliation. Gordon has created dialogue that reveals how victimizers can create an environment by which the victimized lose all sense of self or identity. For the victim it is only about getting through another day and surviving. “You survive by looking down … You only know what you need to know.” Irena Gut loosened the shackles of self-doubt and terror that so many people felt during the occupation and found the courage to love and take action.


Irena’s Vow is an interesting turn for Tovah Feldshuh. Known for portraying such strong Jewish women as Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony, Jessica Stein’s Mother in Kissing Jessica Stein, and the title role on Broadway in Yentl, Irena’s Vow gives Feldshuh the opportunity to create a non-Jewish character that, through memory, ages backward to the Nazi occupation; almost like a female Benjamin Button without the Hollywood special effects. As she narrates her horrific experiences, Feldshuh interacts with the characters of her story. And this is where Feldshuh shines. Feldshuh makes you believe that she is committed to the safety of the Jewish refugees, even as she repeatedly compromises herself and works out her soul’s salvation.


Although Irena’s Vow is a star vehicle for an actress of Feldshuh’s worth, this play is successful because of the incredible ensemble work. Worth noting is the fine performance of Thomas Ryan as Major Rugemer, Irena Gut’s employer. Ryan successfully walks that delicate balance of imbuing Major Rugemer with sensitivity and compassion while maintaining a rigid, austere exterior. And on that note, Dan Gordon ingeniously lifts the veil of Nazi depravity to reveal their humanity, and that some, perhaps, are themselves victims of a maniacal demagogue and his cohorts.


Rumor has it that Scarlett Johanssen is slated to portray Irena Gut Opdyke in the film version of Irena’s Vow. She will definitely look the part, but can she bring Tovah Feldshuh’s intensity and depth. We shall see!!


williamgooch  @


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