Tovah, for Good, Plays a WWII Heroine
By Doug Sturdivant
Tovah Feldshuh brings the harrowing true story of Irena Gut to the stage in Irena's Vow.
It's a challenge in these cynical times to make goodness stick and not sticky, but Tovah Feldshuh has made a career of playing thoroughly admirable, positive people.
They attract her like a magnet, or vice versa. The latest is Irena Gut Opdyke in Irena's Vow at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre, and to hear the actress tell it, they were fated to be mated.
"My name means good," she says. "Tovah means good, and Irena Gut is Irena Good. I think I do have a penchant for people who are good people. In playing the hero, usually there are traits of nobility and decency — whether it's Katharine Hepburn, Golda Meir, even Stella Adler and Sarah Bernhardt. I have a penchant for the salmon swimming upstream, the little fish swimming up a very tough stream."
Irena Gut Opdyke proved her name in World War II. A Polish nurse and devout Catholic, she had seen so many atrocities she vowed to save every life she could. So, as a housekeeper for the highest-ranking Nazi in the area, she filled the cellar of the Polish villa he had confiscated with 12 Jews. And when one of that number became pregnant, jeopardizing the safety of the whole group, she fought to save that life, too.
"I love the audience madly," says Feldshuh. "I believe in them. After all, we've grown up together. I've been in front of Broadway audiences for 36 years. I was in the chorus of Cyrano — 14 lines in a loud red dress. I was the foodseller and had scenes with Chris Plummer."
In contrast to the heavy-duty dramas of recent years, Feldshuh sang, danced and literally cartwheeled her way to Broadway from Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater, where she studied acting — primarily because she never got beyond the waiting list for Harvard Law. ("My father was a wonderful litigator. I've played him 13 times on 'Law and Order.'")
In Minneapolis, she "understudied all the size-seven leading ladies — Roberta Maxwell, Dianne Wiest" — and got a shot at the musical Cyrano, which took shape there and set out for Broadway. When director Michael Kidd asked who could do cartwheels, Feldshuh's hand shot up, and her place on Broadway was assured.
Two years later to the day, she opened in more song and dance — a Broadway revue called Rodgers & Hart. In between was a comedy, Dreyfus in Rehearsal, directed and adapted by Garson Kanin and starring Ruth Gordon and Sam Levene. It lasted only 12 performances, but it gained her two great friends.
"Ruth was the matron of honor, and Garson was the witness, at my wedding to Andrew Levy in 1977. At the Walter Kerr, I have her satin pillowcase that she used as a doily for her dressing table."
Feldshuh's four other Broadway performances were each greeted with a Tony nomination and a different accent — Polish (Yentl), Brazilian (Sarava), Italian (Lend Me a Tenor) and Israeli-via-Milwaukee (Golda's Balcony). She's a one-woman UN.
"I invest a lot of time, energy and love in honoring these souls — and why not? It's so much cheaper than therapy. This is really a wonderful way to earn a living."
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