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Broadway Review

Irena's Vow

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After a hit run Off-Broadway, Dan Gordon's simple and moving true-life drama Irena's Vow has opened on the Main Stem. But can a small-scale play about the power of courage and love to defeat evil achieve a long run on blockbuster- and celebrity-obsessed Broadway? While the production's star may not have the recognition factor among the general public of a Jane Fonda or a Susan Sarandon, you need to catch Tovah Feldshuh. This multiple Tony nominee and Drama Desk Award winner gives a tour de force performance and may spark enough excitement to make Irena's Vow the sleeper hit of a crowded season.

She plays Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish national who hid 12 Jews in the villa of a Nazi general while serving as his housekeeper and later his mistress. The play begins with Irena as a senior citizen with a heavy Polish accent addressing a group of high school students. Aided by David Castaneda's subtle lighting and Alex Koch's evocative projections, Feldshuh melts the years away and becomes the younger Irena, a captivating blonde whose beauty—inner and outer—is undamaged by the violations of invading Russians and Germans. In a perfect wedding of actor and script, neither Feldshuh nor Gordon stoops to syrupy sentimentality in a straightforward, cleanly paced depiction of complicated events. The horrors of the Holocaust are revealed on Feldshuh's eloquent features as Irena haltingly relives atrocities. Her hesitations before she can describe what she has seen speak louder than any graphic depiction.

Gordon has structured the script to allow Feldshuh to slip in and out of narrator mode and take on several other characters, mostly sneering S.S. officers, all of whom she handles with expert strokes of characterization. There are even comic scenes as Irena serves a full-course dinner to a houseful of Nazis with the aide of her hidden Jewish friends. Director Michael Parva fluidly stages the action so we believe we're in the midst of a huge party even though there are only a few actors on stage. He works similar magic throughout the evening, turning an empty stage into a war-torn city.

While this is a showcase for Feldshuh, it's not a one-woman show. There are nine other actors in the cast—practically a mob compared to other Broadway play ensembles. Each is given an opportunity to shine. Thomas Ryan effectively conveys the explosive rage of Major Rugemer, Irena's employer, as well as his growing attraction for her. With a decided lack of histrionics, Ryan chronicles the crumbling of Rugemer's Nazi façade as he falls in love with his housekeeper and realizes his humanity. Maja C. Wampuszyc, Gene Silvers, and Tracee Chimo bring shadings to what could have been clichéd martyr roles as the hiding Jews. John Stanisci is steel and ice as a Nazi officer, and Sandi Carroll has a heart-wrenching cameo as the gentile wife of a Jewish refugee. Steven Hauck, Scott Klavan, and Peter Reznikoff make the most of smaller parts.

Though Irena's Vow is physically small by Broadway standards and lasts only 90 minutes, it's a giant of a play featuring an equally giant star performance.

Presented by Power Productions/Stan Raiff, Daryl Roth, Debra Black, James L. Nederlander/Terry Allen Kramer, and Peter Fine

at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., NYC.
March 29–June 28. Tue., 7 p.m.; Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
(212) 239-6200, (800) 432-7250, or www.telecharge.com.

Original casting by Michael Parva. Additional casting for Broadway production by Jim Carnahan Casting.

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