Irena Opdyke was an extraordinary woman, and in case you need proof, Irenaï¿½s Vow will bonk you over the head with how good she was until you cry uncle. First you will cry tears, however. You will cry tears because this is a compelling story, not because it is an engaging script. As a matter of fact, this is a perfectly boring play about a perfectly extraordinary woman.
Irena Gut Opdyke, was a born in 1918 in Poland. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 she was captured and raped by the Soviets. Later the Germans sent her to forced labor, first in a factory and then in the residence of German officers. There she met and befriended a group of Jewish prisoners who were serving as domestics. When one of the officers, Major Rugemer (Thomas Ryan) was rewarded with a private villa, he took Irena with him. Irena smuggled her twelve Jewish friends into the basement of the Majorsï¿½ villa and, years later, to freedom. When the Major discovered her transgression Opdyke agreed to become the Majorï¿½s mistress in exchange for his silence. This is the condensed version of Opdykeï¿½s story, which, after a bit of research I found to be much more complicated and compelling.
What Mr. Gordon has chosen to do is to try and mold the truth into something that is pleasing. What he has created is an overly sweet and sticky confection that lacks the severity and danger through which Opdyke lived and about which she kept silent for nearly 20 years.
Presented as a sort of lecture to high school students (which she gave often) the format necessitates Opdyke telling us much of what happened instead of letting us see for ourselves. The few moments we do see are ones in which the saintly and Christian sheen of her character are being polished mightily. She offers her own life when the Major discovers two Jews in his upstairs quarters. She convinces a couple not to abort their child and to trust that God will protect them all because of her personal vow to save every life she could. She single handedly prevents a Nazi from getting a little too close to the Jewsï¿½ hiding place by interrupting a sexual liaison. And to top off her narrative, she works in a few laughs. In the end Opdyke is presented more as Molly Goldberg than a scrappy member of the resistance who woke up every day and laid her life on the line.
Ms. Feldshuhï¿½s commitment to this story is genuine, and it shows. But her performance is limited by the script and by the choices she herself makes. She skips and prances around the stage as if to prove she can. Why two actors did not share this part is a mystery. Feldshuhï¿½s young woman is perky and the older on glowingly sentimental. Neither of which is engaging.
The rest of the cast is mediocre, hobbled by the script and by the absence of acting choices that would engage us. Bland all around.
Irenaï¿½s Vow falls into the pit where so many historical dramas end up. Everyone working on this show created a story that they want you to remember, which is not necessarily the story that a) happened or b) has a little drama in it. Itï¿½s like sprinkling sugar on a slice of cake. It assures the sweetness while erasing nuance and detail. Everyone is trying to present Opdyke as a hero, when there is no need to try. The woman was.
PS ï¿½ after the show Opdykeï¿½s daughter, Jeannie Opdyke Smith, came onstage and spoke about her mother. When asked what happened to Major Rugemer, she told us that his family and the military rejected him after the war because of his affair with Opdyke and his silence about the hidden Jews. Ida and Lazaar Hallar, two of the Jews who had hidden in the Majorï¿½s house later returned to Germany, found him living on the street, and took him back to Israel to live with them. Former Major Rugemer became a grandfather to the boy who was born in his basement, the baby who was saved because of Irenaï¿½s vow. Now THAT is a story Iï¿½d like to see.
In his book on the medieval mind, "A World Lit Only By Fire," William Manchester sets down his definition of who is really a hero. He says that "the hero acts alone, without encouragement, relying solely on conviction and his own inner resources. Shame does not discourage him; neither does obloquy. Indifferent to approval, reputation, wealth, or love, he cherishes only his personal sense of honor, which he permits no one else to judge."
Winston Churchill was a man Manchester considered a hero, and he wrote about him in his compelling two-volume biography. Would that he had also written about an unsung hero, Irena Gut Opdyke. Fortunately for us, playwright Dan Gordon has cleaved to Irena's courageous story and it is now being told on the Broadway stage in "Irena's Vow," starring the brilliant actor, Tovah Feldshuh, who starred in "Golda's Balcony" four years ago.
At a time when the world was turned upside-down and Jews were considered a social disease by the Nazis bent on their extermination, one woman listened to her conscience and harbored 13 Jews, saving their lives and those of the generations to come.
Knowing and accepting the dangers she was incurring, she hid these desperate men and women in the cellar of the most officious Nazi in Poland, Major Rugemer, who had given strict orders to annihilate any Jews in the vicinity.
The process of extermination was fairly simple, as explained by the sadistic Sturmbannfuhrer Rokita to the head of the factory where Irena worked. First you have the Jews wear a yellow star to identify themselves. Then you ban the stars and make them carry papers. Then you ban the papers, and keep changing the rules so they are less resistant to following orders. Finally you load them into carts and take them to the camps.
And we all know the rest of the story.
But along the way some were more resilient than others, and Christians like Irena rose to the occasion, and though in great peril, they saved those they could. We have all learned about the heroism of Oskar Schindler and Miep Gies; now we get to learn about Irena, a story that waited too long to be told.
Irena used all her resourcefulness and survival skills to outwit the Nazi soldiers when they came to search the premises. At the point of discovery, she became the Majorï¿½s "whore" in exchange for the safety of her charges, subjugating her independence, self-respect, and place in the community for the greater cause of life. When one of the women became pregnant, she helped keep the newborn survive in the dank and moldy cellar where they lived.
The play is written as a flashback, so the gut-wrenching torment of wondering if the 13 make it out alive is graciously taken out of the equation, but that makes the drama no less powerful. The diminutive Feldshuh is larger-than-life in this commanding role, and she takes over the stage just as she did when she played Golda Meir. Moving effortlessly from 70-year-old lecturer to young girl working as a housekeeper in the Majorï¿½s mansion, Feldshuh tells the story as if she were giving testimony, and wrings every emotion out of us.
Kevin Judgeï¿½s multi-layered platform set creates the illusion of the dungeon atmosphere and the darkness of the life that went on above it. Michael Parvaï¿½s direction is a masterpiece of timing and movement as the Nazis stand upon the very lives that tremble beneath their feet.
Begun as a lecture to the last generation that will know survivors, and ending as a cautionary tale to never let this happen again, weï¿½re chagrined only to realize that genocide still happens over and over again in places further removed from us than Germany and Poland, but no less unfortunate.
This week, remembrances of Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass in which 30,000 Jews were rounded up and taken to concentration camps, were conducted in several countries around the world. Jews say ï¿½Never again,ï¿½ but we must all say it. For those who still doubt, and those who still remember, see ï¿½Irenaï¿½s Vowï¿½
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
"Ms. Opdykeï¿½s potentially moving story is handled in such a banal, ham-fisted manner that it sometimes feels like bad fiction."
New York Times
"gripping and gets the tear ducts flooding"
New York Daily News
"but the constant emphasis on Irena and her quasi-saintly behavior also leeches out conflict and drama."
New York Post
"clumsy, at times cartoonish, melodrama that largely wastes the talents of leading lady Tovah Feldshuh."
"it's a giant of a play featuring an equally giant star performance."
"the play proceeds flatly on its formulaic way, "
"may be melodramatic and occasionally manipulative, but the emotions this stage biography stirs in theatergoers are genuine,"
"it's the compelling true story of courage and heroism that makes Dan Gordon's by-the-numbers script so moving."