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Keeping the Faith -- Even Another's -- on Broadway Stage

April 2, 2009 By:
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Helena ... Irena.

Irena ... Helena.

David Letterman at the Oscars? No, but maybe Tovah at the Tonys.

Much-honored actress Tovah Feldshuh, who starred in TV's "Holocaust" more than 30 years ago, essaying the role of Czech partisan Helena Slomova, may very well have the part of her life on stage now as a Holocaust hero and Polish patriot in "Irena's Vow."

As good as Golda in "Golda's Balcony" -- in the prime of her theatrical life as the late Israeli prime minister -- Feldshuh has audiences vowing victory again now in an amazing portrayal of the Jewish mother of all mother roles who just happened to be Polish Catholic.

When others witnessed Holocaust horrors and took a vow of silence, the genteel and gentile Irena Gut let her actions speak for her, saving a dozen Jews, hiding them right under the noxious noses of the Nazis in the cellar of an officer's home for whom she worked as housekeeper.

From Golda's balcony to Irena's basement, Feldshuh specializes in a pantheon of powerful players, including the girlish "boy" she became in "Yentl" and the hard-edged, sometimes indefensible defense attorney Danielle Melnick she portrays on TV's "Law & Order."

Such role-playing is the order of the day for the New Yorker whose private story is one of being a happily and longtime married marvel of a mother of two. Her story on stage, of Irene Gut Opdyke -- the latter her married name later on in life -- is now at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre, in Dan Gordon's play based on Gut's memoir, In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer.

She comes off well, faults and all, in Feldshuh's holistic hands.

"I've never considered myself a religious Jew," considers Feldshuh, whose many honors span stages across the world, including the Israel Peace Medal and mettle-enhancing awards from Broadway, on and off.

"I was brought up Conservative, with no intimate acknowledgment of the Hashem, like the Orthodox have."

But as time marches on, Feldshuh has become one of the parade's dynamic drummers, culling comfort from her Conservative roots and rooting not from the sidelines but as partisan.

"I have experienced too much in life; it is all too synchromatic to chalk up to coincidence," she adds of the world's wobbly spin on an axis of anxious moments and wondrous watersheds.

Giving back is a given: "It is extremely important to be charitable. It is then when you are in sync with the earth and the sun."

Sunrise, sunset ... Feldshuh sets her clock by standard time; and her personal standard is taking others into consideration, whether it be the cause of Soviet Jews in the past or Israel's future now. And when considering the role of Irena Gut, she went with a gut reaction.

"I was offered this part on a platter of love by Christians," she says. "I am honored to portray this Polish-Catholic heroine."

And, in a way, Broadway is honored to have her back. After all, Feldshuh's last visit produced a Tony Award nomination and primed her for a tour after sweeping away Broadway records with the longest-running one-woman play in 2005.

"How do you revisit Broadway after a play about the prime minister of Israel? You return as Irena Gut!"

Good enough. No, better than that. Feldshuh's onstage transformation transforms the theater into a hiding place of hope and heroics, where one woman won the ways of life over death for a dozen doomed Jewish souls. Seed her with history and the diminutive Tovah is a towering inferno of defiance and death-defying acts of character on stage .

But she isn't your Bubbie's Holocaust hero. Described in the script as a woman speaking "in a lilting and affecting Polish accent that is halfway between glamour and grandmother," there is nothing halfway in the firestorm on stage and the wholehearted, unabashed power in this player's performance.

Inspired by Degas

Inspired by this formidable freedom-fighter confined in the claustrophobic employ of the Nazis during the war, Feldshuh found her a woman not easily swept off her feet, but, ironically, light on her feet.

"To be the young Irena, I studied [Edgar] Degas' vision of dancers," she says of the master painter who found everything beautiful at the ballet.

If Feldshuh feels the onus of history on her well-toned shoulders -- "I do 72 push-ups before each performance" -- she hears the tones of promise and the song of sacrifice only all too well.

"My grandchildren will regard the Holocaust as we do World War I," she says of memories of far-away places assembled on a textbook page in disappearing ink.

"What happens when this era floats into history?"

In a way, Irena is a beginning for the actress, whose role meant "praying to Christ on stage," an experience she had never crossed before. "I had to find a way in."

In keeping with her record of extensive research and placing herself in the moment, the actress proves herself a protean pool of catholic talents.

And as playwright Dan Gordon readies his screen adaptation of the drama, Feldshuh says that she would "be thrilled to play" a significant role in the movie.

Her significance and tony turn at history will certainly be noticed at Tony time. But then, it's all been a matter of stepping up to the stage with the gusto that Degas saw in his dancers -- and Feldshuh saw at home.

"My Mommy is turning 98 this year, and when she had my brother" -- playwright and Pulitzer Prize-nominee David Feldshuh ("Miss Evers' Boys") -- "she almost died during labor. And here she is now -- 98!"

But the nonagenarian knows what it takes to make a life brimming with bravas. And when her daughter reminded her of her near-miss birthing the future writer of "Miss Evers' Boys," Mrs. Feldshuh's boy -- and her daughter -- had to be proud of her reaction. She pshawed it with advice that Tovah seems to have taken to heart and carried with her on to the stage:

"I just did it," Mom Feldshuh said of breaking down the pain into its simplest part, "one push at a time."  

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