PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Irena's Vow — Tovah and Jehovah

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Irena's Vow — Tovah and Jehovah So far-fetched and fantastical are the facts in the life of Irena Gut Opdyke — the World War II heroine played by Tovah Feldshuh in Irena's Vow — that a Q&A session fielded by the character's real-life daughter, Jeannie Opdyke Smith, seemed almost mandatory March 29 when the play bowed at the Walter Kerr.
Tovah Feldshuh and Jeannie Opdyke Smith (daughter to Irena); director Michael Parva, playwright Dan Gordon and guest Neil Simon.
Tovah Feldshuh and Jeannie Opdyke Smith (daughter to Irena); director Michael Parva, playwright Dan Gordon and guest Neil Simon. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Irene Gut Opdyke was to Occupied Poland what Miep Gies, still alive at age 100, did for the Occupied Netherlands: she hid Jews from the Gestapo and certain death.

Whereas Gies hid the Frank family and four others in the sealed-off back rooms of her company's office building in Amsterdam, Opdyke was able to stash a full dozen in the cellar of a confiscated Jewish villa where she was housekeeper for the highest ranking Nazi officer in the area, a Major Rugemer. This population grew in that cramped confinement, and, when an abortion was proposed as a safety measure for the whole group, Opdyke railed against it. Being a Catholic as well as an eye-witness to the Nazi atrocities being committed, she vowed to save every life she could.

From the audience, Concetta Tomei asked, as a Roman Catholic actress, if Opdyke's plea not to have the abortion was a way of saying: Put your faith in life. Take a chance. God would take care of you. And just as she finished saying those words — as if cued from on high — there was a theatre-shaking clap of thunder, signaling that the rains which had been promised all day had finally arrived. The first-nighters broke into convulsive and sustained laughter, and Smith accepted the divine intervention or whatever it was with good humor: "I can't top that," she said.

At the after-party at TAO on East 58th St., she was still musing over that sign from above. "That's how my mother's whole life was," Smith remarked. "You know, if this were a Hollywood movie and that would have happened, people would have thought that was cheesy, but her life has been one miracle after another like that."

Living proof of that was in the audience — the grandson of one of the people Opdyke hid in the cellar. He expressed, to say the least, his gratitude in the Q&A. During the earlier Off-Broadway run of the play, Roman Hallar — the "lucky 13th," late-arriving in that cellar community and the subject of the aforementioned abortion debate — surfaced, and he plans to return to see the Broadway production in April.

Smith has momentarily uprooted herself from her life in Washington state to do the question-and-answer postscripts for the show. Her updates bring a different dimension to the 90 minutes of drama — and "it is a way to keep alive the memories of my mother," who died in 2003 at the age of 85.

Should you wonder whatever happened to the smitten Major Rugemer, who agreed to look the other way "if I could think you loved me," Smith would tell you that he was ostracized from all sides after the war because of his affair with her mother and had indeed become a homeless street person when Roman Hallar's parents found him and took him in for the rest of his days. The boy grew up calling him granddad.

Smith is right: Who's going to buy this as a film? (Yes, she said, there've been offers.)

Technically, the stint counts as Smith's Broadway debut, as it does for the show's writer, director and whole cast — save for the star at the wheel in the title role.

Feldshuh, a four-time Tony nominee, arrived fashionably late at TAO, looking newly and glamorously spent, with the fervor of the evening performance still showing.

How close does she think she came to the real woman? "My job is to conjure up her spirit, so a seamless relationship between me and Irena Gut Opdyke was what I wanted," she answered. "It is very important in life to be alive and wrong rather than dead right. Should I move you with certain idiosyncrasies that you'll never know about me except through this role and you'll never see about her because she's dead — rather than be utterly accurate and not moving? I think I'm pretty close. I hope I conjured up her soul, that which is about her that's eternal. What's eternal about her is that she led heart-first — and then she tried to align her circumstances to defend the actions of the heart. Ain't many like that around."

[flipbook] She's been down this real-life-impersonation road before — with disparate examples like Golda, Tallulah, Bernhardt, Hepburn, Vreeland — and Irena Gut Opdyke is accorded the same passion and commitment she spends on better-known one-names, and she was particularly proud to present her "to the home team" on Broadway.

"It's the thrill of my life," she said of the role. "I love this town. I was born on 90th and Lexington at a now-defunct hospital. I went to Sarah Lawrence. I did my graduate work at Columbia. I'm so grateful to be on the New York stage, no less the Broadway stage, in a role like this. I'm thrilled to be an American girl who wanted to become either a litigator or an activist and ended up an actress having this wonderful journey."


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John Stanisci, the best-looking Nazi since Tom Cruise in "Valkyrie," hovers heavily, if handsomely, over the proceedings as something called Sturnmbannfuhrer Rokita — but played his most important role behind the scenes: "Thomas Ryan, who plays Major Rugemer, and I founded this theatre company, Invictus Theatre, and found this play and with Michael Parva, the director, developed it. We're the ones who championed it and got it to Off-Broadway and eventually, with the help of our producers [Power Productions/Stan Raiff, Daryl Roth, Debra Black, James L. Nederlander/Terry Allen Kramer and Peter Fine], got it to Broadway so this is an incredibly rewarding evening for us, the dream of a lifetime. That's how we feel." Ryan, who has all of his scenes with Feldshuh, had nothing but praise for her professionalism. "She's a force of nature," he contended. "She's a brilliant, brilliant actress. She's a generous actress. She demands more of herself than she does of you, but she demands a lot of you. And it's just a joy to work with her. I love her."

His major is played against the expected norm. "I like about him that he's a complex, emotional human being. He's not one thing, and I didn't want to make him one thing. I didn't want to make him just this innate German Nazi jerk. He was a lonely man. He was a Nazi but not Nazi. He did not believe in what they were doing. He was doing his job. He loved her. The moment he saw her, he fell in love with her. He respected her. He took her in. And he maintained a proper relationship with her."

The "good German" aspect of him rubs off on his manservant, Schultz, but this is slower to show as Steven Hauck sternly and starchily executes the role. "Schultz straddles the line," said the actor. "I think he's like what most of us would have been under those circumstances. He wouldn't have had the courage of Irena, but we would have hoped that we could do something when we were able to. He wanted to survive the war, but he wanted to survive the war with his soul intact."

His best moment is a scene where he shows Opdyke his true colors. "Tovah is always just so there emotionally with me. She's such a laser beam of presence on stage. She leaves the stage once, for about 23 seconds, and she's running around changing clothes during those 23 seconds — but of course she loves that kind of stuff."

The big emotional wallop of the show is delivered by Scott Klavan in a tiny part called The Visitor (to preserve a surprise). "You know I haven't counted the words, but I should," he admitted. "It might depress me if I counted them, but it's a great little part. I do other things that you probably don't notice: I play a Nazi and two Poles at the same time. I'm always busy backstage. They gave me a lot to do in this." Another small-but-mighty bit is the Mayor of Jerusalem by Peter Reznikoff. "I come out at the end and kick the field goal. That's basically what I do. My thing is that, by the time I come out, we've got the audience so I just add the three points."

Technically, Gene Silvers confesses to a previous Broadway credit: "To be honest, I once played a dead body on Broadway — in The Real Inspector Hound — but I don't think that counts." He plays what would have been the father of Roman Hallar, whom he met during the Off-Broadway run. "He's a wonderfully decent man. I'm relatively young, and he's in his late 60's, but he kept hugging me and calling me Papa."

Dan Gordon's play is the result of hearing her tell her story on a radio show 17 years ago, and then following up with a personal contact. "There was so much in her life that we couldn't put in the play because, first of all, it's just unbelievable." After 11 feature films and some 300 hours of television, Gordon has finally gotten around to Broadway. He just had a play open in London's West End — a stage adaptation of Dustin Hoffman's Oscar-winning "Rain Man," with Josh Harnett.

"It was a big hit in the West End, and that was a great thrill, but that's nothing like Broadway. This is the best. This is the absolute best. Broadway is Mecca."

Director Parva, who has been developing this project for two and a half years, made few changes from the Off-Broadway run. "A lot of it stayed intact. I stayed with the same cast and the same designers. I felt we had a very winning team, and I wanted to keep it that way. I hope what they did became richer and deeper for Broadway."

And how would he want the play to be received by the audience? "I hope that they are touched by the humanity of the story and that, basically, one person can make a difference. Irena was an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things, and we're all capable of that. It's very moving to have that represented on stage."

On her way into the theatre, Elaine Stritch was asked if it was true she'd be playing piano for The Full Monty guys (Kathleen Freeman's great gig and last hurrah) in the upcoming Paper Mill Playhouse production. "I think it'll be true in a couple of days, I dunno," she replied cagily. "The idea makes me laugh. The truth of the matter is that it's a beautiful play. I've never seen it, nor have I seen the movie, so I will be fresh."

Just back from L.A. where he did an episode of "Private Practice" ("I was a terribly ill patient. You don't want to know from it."), Joel Grey was doing arias about the evening's performance: "I thought it was amazing, and it was certainly no less dramatic when the daughter came on. It took the show to another level. I loved that."

Also attending: Linda Gray (once of "Dallas," now of playwright Gordon), Raul Esparza, general manager Leonard Soloway, producer Chase Mishkin (soldiering on to Mary Stuart), Jackie Hoffman, columnist Michael Musto, Shawn Elliott and Donna Murphy, comic "Super" Sam Summerall from "Comedy Central," Judith Light, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, David Morse (mulling a Broadway return for next season — but, for now, "My best friend, Tom Ryan, is in this"), David Hyde Pierce (still raving about Geoffrey Rush in Exit the King), actor-playwright Geoffrey Nauffts, Exit the King's loose-limbed Andrea Martin, screenwriter Delia Ephron, Is He Dead? twosome Patricia Conolly and David Pittu, Laura Bonarrigo, Roger Rees, 33 Variations' Moises Kaufman, James Naughton, Lincoln Center's Bernard Gersten, Patrick Wilson and the wife (a pregnant Dagmara Dominczyk) and the mother-in-law (Aleksandra Dominczyk), Tony-winning M. Butterfly B.D. Wong (next: Skip Kennon's Herringbone at the La Jolla Playhouse for the month of August), Blythe Danner (who'll film "Lightkeepers" with Richard Dreyfuss on Cape Cod and "Keep It Together" for debuting director Dermot Mulroney before she gets around to the "Little Fockers" sequel), Megan Hilty (this season's Dolly in 9 to 5) with main-squeeze Steve Kazee from 110 in the Shade and To Be Or Not To Be, Charles Busch (late of Legends!) with the director and co-star of his recent Off-Broadway opus, The Third Story: Carl Andress and Kathleen Turner.


The cast of <I>Irena's Vow</I> at curtain call.
The cast of Irena's Vow at curtain call.