On Stage: “Irena’s Vow”

Warning: This is a spoiler-soaked discussion!

Last Friday I got to see the new Broadway play Irena’s Vow.  It proved to be a thought-provoking evening, but I’m not sure that my lingering thoughts were the ones the playwright intended me to leave with.

Irena’s Vow is a one act play based on the true story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a young Polish Catholic woman who manages to save a dozen Jews from execution during the Holocaust.  She achieves this by miraculously hiding them in the cellar of the home of the occupying German major for whom she is employed as a maid and hostess.  Their survival comes at great personal cost to Irena, but later in life she is able to appreciate the magnitude and results of her bravery.

My first issue with the show is a purely generational one: that is, the story of Irena Opdyke is nothing new to me.  Growing up where I did and when I did, the Holocaust and the efforts of the noble, notable few who tried to save their Jewish friends and neighbors were a part of my education since I was assigned Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars in fifth grade.  The Diary of Anne Frank, Schindler’s List, and other works followed in later years.  I do not take this for granted.  However, when I experience a new Holocaust narrative, I’m looking for specifics that will make it stand out.  With Irena’s Vow, those specifics are glazed over at the expense of hammering home, sometimes quite clumsily, a simple pre-packaged moral that doesn’t do the complete story of Irena Opdyke any justice.

In the closing narration, Irena tells the audience how when the war was over, she was taken by the Russians to a prison camp, charged with collaborating with the Nazis.  Despite all her efforts to subvert the Nazi cause, all the Russians needed to hear was that she was in the employ of the local Nazi commander to condemn her.  She languished in the camp for months, until one of the very men she herself had saved from an identical fate was able to smuggle her to freedom, thanks to his new capacity as a liberated citizen and grocery delivery truck driver.  This astounding reversal is footnoted into a few throwaway lines, which is totally unacceptable, particularly when considering the previous trauma Irena suffered at the hands of the invading Russian soldiers.

At the performance I attended, the real Irena Opdyke’s daughter was on hand to take questions after the curtain call.  Someone asked what became of Major Rugemer, the conflicted Nazi officer who allowed Irena to continue her deception provided that she give herself to him.  Her daughter explained that Rugemer returned in disgrace to his home in Germany.  His family had learned of his affair with Irena and cast him out.  Friends and neighbors refused to take him in, for fear of being arrested as collaborators by the Allies.  Rugemer was soon penniless and homeless.  He was only saved when Lazar and Ida Hallar, two of the Jews who hid in his cellar, took him in.  He lived out his days with them, even coming to be called “Grandpa” by their son who was born while his parents were in hiding.

These two astonishing twists of fate could have been the second act of what would have then been an utterly fascinating, endlessly compelling, and unique, new story of the Holocaust, its survivors, and its perpetrators.  Instead, they are barely discussed, and thus Irena’s Vow loses any real chance  of standing out in the already crowded canon of Holocaust literature.

Tovah Feldshuh as Irena
Tovah Feldshuh as Irena

There are some good things about the show.  The minimalist set by designer Kevin Judge is incredibly versatile, and thus the play flows smoothly from scene to scene.  Dan Gordon’s script has some great moments (with tension expertly heightened by Michael Parva’s direction) and some great lines (made better still by his talented leads, Tovah Feldshuh and Thomas Ryan), but it ultimately felt to me like a dry-run for the big screen.  When my cousin who attended the performance with me asked what I thought, I replied that it was the best movie I had seen on stage all year.

The best thing about the show is Tovah Feldshuh, who plays Irena and will no doubt be ratcheting up multiple theater award nominations (if not wins) this summer for her work.  The fact that she, a woman in her early 50s, can convincing play Irena as both an elderly sage and a naive ingenue, emotionally and physically, is testament to her skill.  That initial transformation takes place in mere seconds.  It is effortless, wholly believable, and beyond impressive.

So, is Irena’s Vow worth seeing?  Perhaps, if only for Feldshuh’s performance.  Just don’t go expecting something new.

~ T

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