Actress, chanteuse, four-time Tony Award nominee, two-time Emmy nominee: When it comes to performing, Tovah Feldshuh has done it all, in musicals Sarava, plays Lend Me a Tenor, Yentl, solo shows Golda’s Balcony, Tallulah Hallelujah!, film Kissing Jessica Stein, TV Law & Order, as defense attorney Danielle Melnick and cabaret the deliciously titled Tovah: Out of Her Mind!. Whew! Luckily for Broadway audiences, this powerhouse lady has found a new role worthy of her talent: Irena Gut Opdyke in Dan Gordon’s fact-based portrait of a World War II heroine, Irena’s Vow. By now, Feldshuh is an expert at bringing real people to vibrant life on the stage, most notably in her Tony-nominated performance as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. How did she decide to take on a new play requiring split-second shifts between the elderly Irena, narrating her own story, and the teenage Irena determined to save the lives of her co-workers? Here, Feldshuh traces the journey to Broadway of her newest tour-de-force role.
Irena’s Vow came to me through love—it’s as simple as that. My good friend John Stanisci, who founded the Invictus Theater Company along with Thomas Ryan, called me and said, “I have a great part for you.” They sent the script and asked me to do a reading to help them raise money. At that point, I had no notion that the play would make it to Broadway. I was just helping a friend, but that reading led to an off-Broadway production last fall, and now to the Walter Kerr Theatre. I am playing an amazing woman, Irena Gut Opdyke, and I share the stage with John and Tom and seven other great actors. It’s been a beautiful journey that happened for all the right reasons.
Irena Gut Opdyke was an ordinary Polish Catholic girl who did extraordinary things under extraordinary circumstances. In 1939, at the age of 18, she was rounded up by the Nazis and sent to a munitions camp to be a slave laborer working for the German war effort. Because of her “Aryan” features—blonde hair, blue eyes and a German name Gut—she was plucked from munitions and chosen by a high-ranking German officer to run the barracks laundry as well as serve the German officers. In the laundry, she worked with a dozen Jews; while in the parlor serving the SS, she heard that all Jews of Tarnopol were going to be rounded up and liquidated on July 22. Irena decided to take her life in her own hands and help her Jewish friends.
If Irena had been caught, she would have been hung. That was the law in Poland, unlike other countries, in which helping Jews was not punishable by death. The Talmud says, “If you save a life, you have a universe,” and Irena felt compelled to try to save their lives. She helped these people with barely a warning and without any training. She put her heart together with her faith and hid 12 Jewish adults and a newborn baby in the basement of the villa of the highest ranking German officer in Tarnopol, Poland now the Ukraine for over two years during World War II. This is a true story; a story documented by 13 corroborating testimonies of the people whose lives she saved. They called her their angel... and if this weren’t true, you’d never believe it. Irena herself never spoke of it for 35 years.
I love so many elements of this play. It’s about resurrection, hope, the best of religious values. It also has humor—more specifically, comic relief under unbelievably pressured circumstances. I believe this is an important asset of Irena’s Vow. Dan Gordon the playwright and the cast succeed in making the audience laugh so they can cry. That’s something I learned doing concerts: Put your comedy up front to loosen up the laughing belly of the audience, then go in with that 11 o’clock number and make them weep. Muscularly, the sob and the laugh are identical; emotionally, they are polar opposites.
I love the fact that this is a true story about a righteous Christian. It is my first time playing a Polish Catholic. I always enjoy my visits to the Catholic Church—which I’ve made often, starting at the Old Globe Theatre, playing roles from Juliet in Romeo & Juliet to Isabella in Measure for Measure. I enjoy exploring other religions and other cultures. I’m an avid research trip taker and through this wonderful profession, I’m able to participate in all kinds of artistic and intellectual adventures, for which I’m so thankful. I am also grateful to my director Michael Parva, who endlessly seeks the truth.
I believe that the quickest road to happiness is gratitude, and I’m very grateful to have been born when I was, and to have been raised on theater. I remember seeing Gwen Verdon on Broadway when I was six years old, and Helen Hayes doing Harvey with Jimmy Stewart. And then, when I played Yentl on Broadway, I was visited backstage by Helen Hayes! Also: Martha Graham, Rex Harrison, Mary Martin, among other legends...it was a dream.
And the friendships? I did a musical revue for Richard Rodgers called Rodgers & Hart on Broadway in the summer of 1975, and our company manager was a young man named Leonard Soloway. Thirty-four years later, he is the general manager for Irena’s Vow, my treasured pal—and still so young! How does he do it?!
So here I am, doing a play that was handed to me on a platter of love. I got involved with it to help my dear pal John Stanisci, and look what he and the play have given me: a true story about a real-life heroine who never gave up on herself; a simple kid who was able, literally, to create a miracle.