Art that purports to treat broad swaths of human catastrophe can all too easily turn mawkish or sanctimonious. But in Irena’s Vow, a play about a Roman Catholic housekeeper who saves 12 Jews during World War II, playwright Dan Gordon largely avoids both pitfalls. Tovah Feldshuh brings verve and welcome humor to the role of Irena Gut Opdyke, a young Polish woman who’s raped by Russian soldiers before falling into the hands of the invading German army. Managing the household of the lonely Major Rugemer (Thomas Ryan), an avuncular German officer out of sync with the ascendant SS, she learns that the Jews working under her are marked for death and decides that, despite her own privations, she must choose between “complicity and redemption.” Hiding the Jews in Rugemer’s cellar, Irena must fend off the suspicious SS officer Rokita (John Stanisci) while also parrying Rugemer’s awkward amorous advances.
Feldshuh is thoroughly delightful in the role, barking out terrifying imitations of snooping Nazis, conspiring with her newfound Jewish friends, playing the dutiful, quietly subversive Polish hausfrau. “If not for the fact that they could have killed us all, I think it could have been very funny,” she notes dryly at one point, reminding us of the proverb that he who laughs, lasts.