October 1, 2008

Tovah's Mission Fulfills "Irena's Vow"

Tovah Feldshuh has a knack for playing singular women. Three years ago, she took on Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony, William Gibson’s one-hander about the former Israeli prime minister, and turned that portrayal into the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history. So when Feldshuh walked onto the stage of the Baruch Performing Arts Center and began speaking directly to the audience at the start of her new show Irena’s Vow, I figured we were in for another solo affair. I was wrong. This true story of a Polish Catholic woman who hid Jews from the Nazis has a cast of 10. But I wasn’t completely wrong. The most commanding presence on that stage is Feldshuh.

And I hadn’t expected anything less. Feldshuh has been commanding attention since she was the undisputed star of the theater department at Sarah Lawrence College when we were both students there some 40 years ago. Back then, I, a small-talent freshman, was too intimidated to speak to her, the big-talent senior, but I’ve followed her career ever since. Her first big break was, coincidentally, in the 1978 TV miniseries “Holocaust”, where her co-stars included Rosemary Harris, Sam Wanamaker, Fritz Weaver and a couple of other newcomers named James Woods and Meryl Streep.

By that time, Feldshuh had already dropped the less-ethnic sounding stage name she’d adopted, Terri Fairchild, and was proudly embracing her Jewishness by using her distinctively Hebrew name Tovah. That pride in her heritage has remained a motivating force for Feldshuh, both personally and professionally—be it raising money for Jewish causes or adding beyond-stereotype grit to the Jewish women she played in movies like “Kissing Jessica Stein” and TV shows like “Law & Order” where she has a recurring role as the no-nonsense defense attorney Danielle Melnick.

Feldshuh’s latest character Irena isn’t Jewish but Irena’s story continues Tovah’s mission. (Click here to read an interview she gave Peter Filichia before previews for Irena’s Vow began.) Like Oskar Schindler, Irena Gut Opdyke was one of the “Righteous” gentiles who risked her life to save Jews during the Holocaust. After helplessly watching Nazis bash the head of a Jewish infant in the street, Irena, then barely 20, vowed that she would do whatever she could to help future victims. And so while working as a housekeeper for a Nazi officer, she hid a dozen Jews in his basement and when he eventually discovered them, she became his mistress to keep him from betraying her friends.

The play presents this inspirational story as a flashback, book-ended by a lecture the 70 year-old Irena gives to a group of high school students in L.A., where she immigrated after the war. (She eventually became a well-known interior decorator and died in 2003, two weeks after her 85th birthday.) Dan Gordon’s script, based on the memoir Irena wrote, adds leavening humor where it can, Michael Parva’s direction adds suspense even though we know the story will end with Irena's survival and the talented cast makes it all believable, even though Feldshuh spends most of the 90-minute play portraying a woman less than half her age.

Despite these good efforts, the show still carries the sermonizing air of one of those old uplifting "After School Specials". Of course, it’s almost impossible for this kind of Holocaust tale to do anything else. And its message remains a vital one, particularly as revisionists continue to deny the genocide that occurred and new masters of mass slaughter continue to kill millions of others around the world.

The audience at the Baruch Center didn’t need to be reminded about the lessons of the Holocaust but it clearly appreciated the retelling. You could hear people trying to stifle sobs at the performance my friend Lisa and I attended. The woman sitting right in front of us, who seemed particularly moved by the events onstage, turned out to be the real Irena’s daughter, Jeannie Smith (Click here to read about her and another Irena "descendant").

Quieting the applause at the curtain call, Feldshuh introduced Smith to the audience and brought her on stage to answer questions about her mother. The play, of course, has a special meaning for Smith. “It’s been five years since my mother died and I miss her every day,” she told the cast, barely able to hold back tears. “Thank you for bringing her back to life for these 90 minutes.”

Video projections of the actual Irena show a tall blonde woman who looked nothing like the petite brunette Feldshuh but I know what Smith means. The spirit is clearly the same. Indomitable.

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