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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
IRENA’S VOW
at the Walter Kerr

PROMISES TO KEEP
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Tovah Feldshuh with Thomas Ryan/Ph:Sara Krulwich

Saying anything negative about Irena's Vow just feels mean. The real story on which the play was based is truly remarkable, riveting, and, yes, uplifting, and the woman at its center inspired enormous love and loyalty, as the play itself, written by her friend Dan Gordon, evidences. And the stirring testimony of her daughter, who is scheduled to take questions from the audience after performances through April, is just further proof of Irena's worthiness as a person and a subject.

As her older self narrates, Irena Gut Opdyke (Tovah Feldshuh) is a pretty, spoiled nursing student in Poland when World War II hits her town. After suffering atrocities at the hands of the Soviets, she winds up in a Nazi munitions factory where her blonde Aryan-esque looks and high-school German catch the eye of German efficiency enthusiast Major Rugemer (Thomas Ryan). She's put on household work and given charge of a crew of Jews retained for their (mostly non-existent) tailoring abilities-with whom she almost immediately bonds. After she inadvertently witnesses a bloody massacre in the town square, Irena swears never to stand by again if she can help prevent such an atrocity. Learning that the Germans plan to kill all the Jews in the region immediately, she smuggles her friends into the Major's commandeered villa, where she's just been made housekeeper. It sounds almost like Hogan 's Heroes territory, but Irena and her friends' subsequent tribulations-mysterious threats of blackmail, surprise visits from the SS, hosting Christmas parties for the German officers, the pregnancy of one of the Jewish women-are both terrifying and suspenseful. To go on would be to risk spoilers: Suffice it to say that the story is truly a dramatic one.

So why be mean? Because thie well-meaning endeavour feels more like melodrama and Irena's startling story deserves a bit better. Director Michael Parva does an admirable job of keeping the action tight and the plot moving quickly, but neither his efforts nor the acting abilities of his talented cast can entirely disguise the moments when the play bogs down in schmaltzy set-pieces, as when Irena agonizes over her feelings about the pregnancy. Moments like that seem meant to stand in for introspection, which is otherwise remarkably lacking - we learn that Irena is scared, yet determined, but we get precious little beyond that, and scarcely any sign of inner conflict, doubt, or just plain weariness. And if Irena lacks that kind of development, how much more so every other character in the show! Ryan miraculously manages to impart real depth and development to the meticulous Major, but we only meet a few of the Jews, and those are barely distinguishable from one another. Feldshuh's performance is feisty, mischievous, and often charming, but she's almost got too much to work with, and her heroic efforts to energize the action end up feeling more like grandstanding. The story she relates is indeed marvelous-but without more nuance, it doesn't move beyond marvel to be the kind of inspiring ideal it should be.

 


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