Busted: Tovah Feldshuh
The star of Irena's Vow on Broadway visits the Busted Halo show on Sirius XM Radio
BH:[laughs] You received your first Emmy nomination for your portrayal of the Czech freedom fighter, Helena, in Holocaust on TV. So it seems like you are — you have gravitated towards roles, strong women roles, strong Jewish women, telling stories about this. Has this been an intentional choice?
TF: No. I think that our lives — except for your children and maybe your folks — your life is about yourself. It isn’t about the guy down the street or the guy next door, which is part of the problem in the world. Likewise, when you see a moniker, Tovah Feldshuh, the shorthand for that is Israeli, Orthodox, foreign — of which I am neither. I’m neither Orthodox, Israeli, nor foreign. I’m an American-born citizen, Terri Sue Feldshuh, right here in New York City. So I’m given much too much credit for any heroism. But what happened is that once my name became Tovah Feldshuh, and I didn’t even realize how Hebraic it was until I came here — I was in Minneapolis as a McKnight fellow and Tovah is a Danish name, it means ‘dove’. So they thought I was [in Danish accent] Tovah Feldshuh, you know, part of the Scandinavian population out there. So once I came here it was, if I did a good audition, I was handed certain pieces on a silver platter.
BH: Now no one with a TV probably can escape the ubiquitous Law & Order, and you have been present on that, going head-to-head with Jack McKoy.
TF: [in accent] “Come on, Jack!”
BH: I love Danielle!
TF: I love her, too. You know my dad was a litigator and I said, [in accent] “Dad, is this the way you talked when you were a baby?” “Did your mother go, ‘lullaby, and good night’?” “If it please the court, Your Honor.” “Come on, Jack!”
BH:[laughs] You’re always, like, in a bar — having a scotch with him, and trying to negotiate getting this guy off.
TF: That’s right! And I’ve been on that show for thirteen years, and you know, nobody’s getting younger so I’m shrinking. The guy has to now look for me. You know, menopause: it’s when God says, “Thanks for the children, buh-bye.”
BH: [laughs] Irena’s Vow had a tremendous run off-Broadway, they moved it on-Broadway, which essentially means a bigger theater…
TF: That’s right. It means an agreement with 956 people a show as opposed to 210 people a show, that you’re telling a worthy story around that wonderful campfire called the theater. This is the third time this has happened to me. Yentil moved from BAM — Brooklyn Academy of Music — to the Eugene O’Neill Theater; it was the first time I was on a marquee. Golda’s Balcony moved from Manhattan Ensemble Theater, down on Mercer Street, to the Helen Hayes. And now, we moved from Baruch College, from the Performing Arts Center down at 24th and Lexington with Irena’s Vow — on the wings of the critics — to the phenomenal Walter Kerr Theater. People love this play because it’s a people’s play. It’s a moving experience, and people want to come to the theater to be moved. They really do. They want to be on the tightrope. I mean, in all due respect to reality TV, there still is a Theater in the United States, and it still has a very strong heartbeat in New York where people pay to see a story, hopefully brilliantly told by people skilled enough to do it to their beloved other — and the beloved other, of course, the intimate other, is the audience. And I get to do fourteen monologues in direct address to the audience — it’s marvelous — as this older woman. And she shares her secrets, and she flips back in time and she’s this virginal blond-haired, blue-eyed in a beautiful blue little demure dress that we based on the Catholic schoolgirl uniform, this idea that she was ‘true blue’ — it’s a delft blue now. It’s related to the blue of Mary, the mother of Christ. And I have a great old time. She felt she had these guides in life, and I’m sure that many people who are Catholic feel that they have these pals; these pals to show them the way or with whom to have dialogue, I think.
BH: But it’s a very moving, very emotional show. I can’t imagine that it does not affect you as a performer on the stage when people are crying.
TF: They’re crying and they’re hopefully laughing. I love a good laugh, and God knows we’ve put several in the show. The stress is so high in Irena’s story that some of it is comical; it just is. The juxtaposition of almost getting caught, and then — you know, you could do ninety-nine things right in the hiding of a fugitive; you make one mistake, and it’s over and out. Whether it’s the underground railroad where we so — rightfully so — the white people of America helped free the black slaves and get them into the North, or whether it’s taking ten righteous Christians — which is what it pretty much took to save one Jewish victim of the Holocaust. I went to the Warsaw ghetto and the Warsaw ghetto boundaries are very, very ragged, so the palais de justice — where the judges were — the entryway of it is on the Jewish side of the ghetto; the exit is on the Aryan side. So righteous Christians would take these Jews in who were gonna go to trial, and they would hide them in the janitor’s closet, shave them, get them fresh clothes, clean them up, and walk them out the Aryan side where people would come up to them and say, “Jew. I know you’re a Jew,” and the righteous Christians would say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about; this is my cousin and we’re going home.” So there were people ready to do blackmail, turn them in — all sorts of stuff. But it took quite a few people to save these lives and many, many people did.