At the performance reviewed, it was obvious why “Irena’s Vow” is an important work. After the play — which tracks Polish Catholic Irene Gut Opdyke’s real-life rescue of Jews during WWII — the late heroine’s daughter stepped onstage to answer questions. She served to remind us that Nazi atrocities are recent events, and even though we’ve heard a hundred Holocaust tales, we still need to lean forward and listen.
Because it tells a great story — and stars a remarkable Tovah Feldshuh as Opdyke — the production survives its workmanlike script. Unsurprisingly for a writer with a background in films, Dan Gordon (“The Hurricane,” “Murder in the First”) essentially delivers a screenplay, sketching characters in quick-cut scenes, stuffing exposition into static direct address, and ignoring the theater’s ability to manipulate time and space.
Gordon also muddles important transitional details, like exactly how Opdyke moved her charges from place to place in her Polish town. A movie director could put that info in a montage, but here, helmer Michael Parva just scurries past the confusing bits.
Fortunately, this doesn’t blunt the major details: In Nazi-occupied Poland, 17-year-old Irena (the script Anglicizes her name) smuggles a dozen Jews into the home of German officer Eduard Rugemer (Thomas Ryan). Working as Rugemer’s housekeeper, she keeps her friends protected for months, even after one of them has a baby.
When her secret is discovered, the sacrifices Irena makes to save them lead to the misperception she is a Nazi sympathizer, causing her fellow Poles reject her.
That’s an irony Gordon underlines well: He structures the finale to assert that right and wrong are not as distinct as we’d like to believe.
Given her life, it’s understandable that Gordon writes Irena as saint. And given the temptation, it’s exhilarating that Feldshuh doesn’t play her as one. In her stiff posture and sharp hand gestures we see a headstrong girl who needs to be right.
Feldshuh also makes the most of her blonde wig and curve-flattering maid’s uniform. The more confident Irena becomes, the more she tosses her hair and swivels her hips, as if she’s occasionally enjoying the glamour of subterfuge. This gives fascinating depth to her virtuous acts.
Irena also shows affection for her boss. Feldshuh never suggests that Irena loves Rugemer, but her soft voice and tilted head show she cares for the elderly German soldier who treats her like a lady.
Ryan’s work is just as textured. When he discovers what Irena’s been doing, he races from rage to hurt to resigned admiration with just a few shifts of his face.
Supporting thesps are sturdy, but they’re stranded with functional roles. Kevin Judge’s set is also utilitarian, relying on basic platforms and doors.
Quentin Chiappetta’s music, however, constantly intrudes. Syrupy strings ooze during scene changes. But we don’t need the music’s help to realize Irena’s life was important: Few people who encounter this woman will forget her.