Irena’s Vow is a striking contrast to the gilded nihilism and glitzy escapism that marks much of Broadway. “I hung a sign on my heart and nerves,” says Irena (Tovah Feldshuh), looking back over her young adulthood. “Do not disturb.” It is easy to see why. For the memories which she wishes to shut away are heinous, inhuman: finding a person buried alive, while she can only stand helpless; seeing a baby dashed to the ground; witnessing an entire race exterminated like an infestation of rats. Yet such memories cannot go forgotten, and this remarkable play is her telling of what it was like to be a young Polish woman at once dependent on a Nazi officer, and depended on by twelve Jews.
The terrors relayed are heinous and inhuman, but they are not the final word. Instead, the play is shaded with somber beauty and even a joyful affirmation of human goodness. Based on the true story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a Catholic woman during the German occupation of Poland, Irena’s Vow is her telling of how she fulfilled a promise made to God after witnessing a mass execution: “If ever I had the chance to save a life, I would do it.” And so she proceeded to hide a dozen Jewish friends in the basement of the villa where she lived—in the basement, that is, of a Nazi Kommandant.
Suspense runs high, as one might expect, and violence always looms just offstage. Yet some of the most powerful moments in this play are the seemingly subdued ones. At one point, the Jews ask for games and books, hoping for simple pleasures which, any sensible person might say, are trivial when life is on the line. But, as one of the Jews reminds Irena, “It is not enough merely to live; we have to live like people. . . . We can’t just be like rats hiding in the darkness.”
Where there’s life, there’s hope, the saying goes, and this play proves that profoundly. Hope for physical survival, yes, but also hope for spiritual survival, for the triumph of what is good and true. Closely related, where there’s hope and where there’s faith, there is life. As Irena puts it in one anguished moment, “We should have faith, or something else will die within us.” And that something else—that intrinsic connection of every man to the Creator—is precisely what the Nazis want to destroy.
“She was an icon of respect for life at all stages,” said Archbishop Timothy Dolan, after seeing the play last week. “Irena was so profound in speaking about hope. Even though it seems dark, even though is seems like Good Friday, there’s always an Easter.” Written by Dan Brown and directed by Michael Parva, Irena’s Vow is playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York.