Tony- and Emmy-nominated actress Tovah Feldshuh is well known for her recurring role as Danielle Melnik on TV’s Law & Order, but when she visited the Busted Halo Radio Show on Sirius XM recently, it was to talk about her starring role in the new Broadway play Irena’s Vow at the Walter Kerr Theater. Irena’s Vow is the uplifting true story of a courageous World War II heroine, a young Polish Catholic woman who helped a dozen Jews survive the Holocaust. The show recently ended a record-breaking sold out engagement off-Broadway; and its move to Broadway marks Tovah Feldshuh’s first appearance to the Broadway stage since she played former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony — the longest-running one-woman show in the history of Broadway. She has won four Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Critics Circle Awards, an Obie, a Theatre World Award and the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Actress.
Busted Halo: Can you tell us a bit about this character you’re portraying onstage and how as a Jewish woman you’ve been able to relate to her?
Tovah Feldshuh: You know, Irena Gut Opdyke, of course, was a Catholic, and actually she was in the Church one time as a child and it was so harsh for her — some of the priests were so harsh — that she decided God was in a tree, and she used to go to the forest and talk to this tree all the time. Now, the reason this resonates for me is that when my father, Sidney, may he rest in peace, died, a nd I used to go to a tree — I’m a runner, so I went to the reservoir and there was a tree — and I said this prayer — not for one year, as is asked for in my faith, but for two years because I couldn’t process the grief. And so, we bear that in common. But, Christ and Jesus was a close pal of Irena Gut, as well as Mary. Big stuff. She always said she could have never gotten through this without her faith. It’s a true story, it’s very American in the sense that it says ‘the power of one makes a difference’ — the rugged individual, the “Sully” who was the pilot of the US Air flight, that extraordinary Richie Phillips who was the captain of the ship and sacrificed himself to save his crew and then survived. This too, Irena Gut Opdyke was just an ordinary kid under extraordinary circumstances who did extraordinary things. And it happened. It really happened.
BH: Well she’s a Polish Catholic and she decided to — with potentially, life-threatening consequences — to protect twelve Jews in occupied Poland during the Holocaust. And I was in a restaurant the other night in the Theater District — it was after the show time, people having their little dessert after a Broadway show — I saw someone with the playbill that had your picture on the front, and I went up to the table and I said, “How was the show?” And this family was just gushing. They said it was so powerful, Tovah was wonderful, and they said that Irena’s daughter actually came out on stage at the end of the show to take questions.
TF: Until June 1st, Janina Opdyke Smith, Irena Gut Opdyke’s daughter, is in New York to do a brief Q&A after the show. So not only did Irena Gut walk the earth, but living proof of such is her beautiful daughter. And it’s extraordinary — Irena will talk (she wrote a book called In My Hands) and she’ll talk in that book or she’ll talk in the testimony that she gave Steven Spielberg [nine hours of Shoah Institute testimony]: [in Polish accent] “I do not know. God put into my hands the lives of twelve people, into my hands. And I was not much older than you are now.” She was seventeen, eighteen. “I did not know if we would live or if we would die, or if we did, how may of us would live, how many of us would die.” And it must be remembered that inside the Polish territory, called the gouvernementgeneral under the Nazi Reich, for any Pole that helped a Jew, the punishment was death. Not just for you, but for you, your husband, your children, and your parents. From generation to generation. When Meip helped the Franks in Holland and the Franks were discovered and deported to Auschwitz, Meip was not killed. In Poland, you were strung up. You were hung in the town square.
BH: So I would imagine for you playing this role, it’s not just been another acting role. You actually went to Czestochowa, Poland, to research the role.
TF: I went all over Poland, right. She was born in Kozienice, I got her birth certificate; she’s a good ole girl — she lied a little bit about her age, God bless her. Being an actress, I’m used to that. You know what Katherine Hepburn says, [in accent] “As you see me, gentlemen. As you see me.”
BH: [laughs] Nice. And you encountered Catholicism in Poland — which right now is certainly burgeoning.
TF: Big, burgeoning, healthy, wonderful, embracing. And also, in its abundance, giving birth back to the Jewish communities of Kraków and of Warsaw. The Catholics are running these big Jewish festivals in Kraków attended by tens of thousands of people. So, Czestochowa I found particularly inspirational. And Irena’s house was between the large cathedral that was the cathedral to the black Madonna — the, of course, the miracle of the black Madonna in 1651; the Swedes invaded Poland (it’s called the Swedish Deluge) and they wrought havoc over the properties of the Church in Poland and they tried to burn down this cathedral. They succeeded but they could not burn down this extraordinary portrait of the Madonna. And she is adorned, and it is a Church of abundance, and busy — I tell you, the rites for confession; man, that was a busy place.