Carol Rosegg
Tanner Stransky
March 29, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

When you learn that Irena’s Vow concerns the German atrocities of World War II, you might be inclined to think: ”Another Holocaust story?” But Vow deftly focuses not on mass suffering but one woman’s true heroic struggle to save 12 Jews from extermination despite enormous odds.

Four-time Tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh plays Irena Gut, a real-life Polish Catholic who worked as the housekeeper for a high-ranking Nazi during the German occupation of Poland. With an innocent gusto and unparalleled survival instincts, Irena takes 12 Jewish refugees into hiding in her boss’ very villa. Much of the plot ticks around her cleverness in hiding them and her willingness to risk her life to do so.

As expected, Vow has its heavy moments: Nazi commanders bark orders and Irena describes horrific executions she has witnessed. But playwright Dan Gordon also generously sprinkles the show with welcome bits of humor — mostly from the magnanimous Irena. After recounting an incident in which she circumvented Nazis by leading her refugees from the cellar to the attic and then back again, she notes with a wink: ”If not for the fact that they could have killed us at any moment, I think this could have been pretty funny.” The play’s subplots — including an elegy on abortion and a tragic romance between Gut and her boss — wrap nicely into the production?s quick 90 minutes. The framing of the play is sharp, too — an older Irena relates her story to a class of high school students. Viewers see Feldshuh effortlessly shift from an older Irena speaking to the students to a younger Irena living through the events.

There are strong performances from the entire cast, but the play is truly Feldshuh’s. The actress lends a gravity and fierce verve to her depiction of Irena that is utterly believable. ”I had to choose,” Feldshuh says as she begins relating Irena’s story, ”between life and death.” That heavy, yet hopeful, sentiment is the crux of this heartrending production. A-

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