I recently saw the first dramatic reading of a play ever staged at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Entitled Irena’s Vow, the play is based on the real-life story of Irena Gut Opdyke, who, during World War II, saved the lives of 13 Jewish refugees by hiding them in her basement shelter. The players had just finished a six-month stint off Broadway, and are currently preparing the show for Broadway, where it will begin performances on March 10, 2009.
Based on a script by Dan Gordon and directed by Michael Parva, the play begins with Irena as an old woman, speaking with students at a school in the United States about her experiences, as she often did later in her life. Through her narrative, and a series of flashbacks, we are taken to Poland in the 1930s, as the Russians and Germans invade and occupy Irena’s home. Irena witnesses the brutal murder of a woman and her child by a German soldier, and vows to never again stand by and do nothing when innocent lives are threatened. She soon finds herself in a unique position to hide and protect the Jewish refugees working in the kitchen of a German officer, and begins the remarkable task of hiding them, giving them food and helping them shelter hope in the midst of the gathering storm around them.
Irena was 19 years old – beautiful, intelligent, and a devout Roman Catholic. She felt a deep compassion for those she was to protect, and even towards the Nazis with whom she spent her everyday life. Entranced by her wit and charm, an older German officer took her into his home to preside over the cleaning, cooking and management of his affairs. He eventually fell deeply in love with her, which helped account for her ability to hide 13 wanted people in the cellar of his house for two years.
A Different Story
The reading was simple and straightforward, with little direction, and many of the actors were in plain clothes and holding their scripts. But the humanity and strength of the story and the hard yet subtle truth of Gordon’s script made the reading powerful. Irena is played by Emmy and Tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh with grace and humor, a charming light in the midst of terrible circumstances, emboldened by her faith in God and humankind that the evil she sees is not the natural way of things, and will not overtake them.
The play was well received by the crowd at the United Nations, to put it mildly. Toward the end of the reading, the actors became increasingly hard to hear due to the widespread sounds of sniffling, and members of the audience rifled through pockets and purses for handkerchiefs and tissues. There were few dry eyes in the house.
And this is what I found particularly rousing about the performance: its ability to move this audience in this place. Most of the audience members were delegates at the United Nations: ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, researchers and activists. It is not easy to elicit tears from such a crowd. At a cocktail party afterward, as the cast came into the forum, the delegates lined up to wring their hands, to congratulate and give their thanks. Their eyes were shining with a particular light I have not often seen in those halls.
Several nights later I was having dinner with several of the lead actors of the play, Jon Stanisci and Tom Ryan, who both play German officers. Each is an accomplished actor with an impressive resume. But there was something different about this play, Stanisci told me. It took a series of near miracles to even get the play produced, and then staged, and then financed off-Broadway as the financial crisis hit full steam last fall, and finally to open on Broadway this spring, when so many other productions were closing their doors and moving on.
“I think there is a particular truth to the story,” said Stanisci. “This young woman, who was so normal and humble, propelled by the simple need to do good in a place that was so dark – there is something special about it that audiences respond to. I really think it is a blessed play, and we are blessed to be a part of it.” Ryan nodded his agreement.
A Crucial Place
This made me think again of the United Nations. My work there with an international advocacy organization brings me deep into the halls of the UN Headquarters. The UN was founded in the aftermath of the world broken by war, by the types of atrocities that Irena lived through and fought against. The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” If we do not steer our societies by the course of intrinsic human dignity, of the value of each human life despite the race, creed or circumstances, we veer unconsciously back toward untold destruction.
And yet this is not the belief one always sees affirmed in the halls of the UN. It has become a battle ground for culture wars and ideologies, and movements. Like any governing body, it is susceptible to corruption and that great force that turns power into impotence: bureaucratic process. Working there can overwhelm a person, as it no doubt does to many of the young delegates, or those from countries with weak economies and few resources. It is a place where power is often wielded irresponsibly, and questionable legislation approved because it is politically expedient, which will ultimately harm those most vulnerable to sickness and pain.
All of this makes works of art like Irena’s Vow even more important, and its staging at a place like the United Nations so crucial. Gone from that theater were the warring ideologies, political posturing, and the legislative mire of international policy. Here was a piece of art, presented simply, with little pomp or show, telling us that a single person, devoted to good and human dignity, can change the way of things. The delegates who might have been most opposed to some of the messages of the play sniffled alongside their political rivals. This is a testament to the power of art, the power of truth that cuts through our reason and our career and our politics. True art confronts us with a higher reason, a higher truth, bypassing paradigm and discourse and addressing itself to the heart. It reminds us that each human person is sacred, valued, to be protected. And that the smallest person, acting in courage, can make all the difference.