A crowd of one

Actress Tovah Feldshuh brings her cadre of characters with her wherever she goes, including Dolly, Yentl and Golda Meir.

Tovah Feldshuh 88 248 (photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
Tovah Feldshuh 88 248
(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
At the theater district restaurant known for its food and its famous guests, it's late afternoon - the quiet hour during which I will interview actress Tovah Feldshuh. It was through an earlier Jerusalem Post interview that the actress was able to locate her family in Israel. That's a story which, like other of Feldshuh's inspirational tales, begins with shooting a movie; it continues with visiting Yad Vashem and ends up with traveling around the world, giving birth to her son and receiving a letter from an Israeli relative. Indeed, Tovah's loquaciousness is matched only by her incredible haste with the spoken word. No sooner do we meet than I realize that the peacefulness of the afternoon is shattered. It's not really because of the film crew that is following her everywhere, shooting a documentary about Irena's Vow, her current Broadway show. It's rather that the entire United Nations seems to have burst into the room. First, Feldshuh brings out the Irish woman, Dolly Gallagher Levi (Hello, Dolly!), who makes her social introduction with an irresistible brogue, then a young man, a yeshiva student, makes a quick appearance. Yentl, Feldshuh's first Broadway show, rewarded her with the first of her four Tony nominations - New York theater's greatest recognition. Since then, she's played a multitude of characters - often simultaneously - as she did in Golda's Balcony, portraying Golda Meir, Golda's husband, Moshe Dayan, King Abdullah of Transjordan and a very funny Henry Kissinger. This is Feldshuh in just a few of her myriad manifestations, and that is the Feldshuh to whom I am speaking. The others who arrive at our table to break the afternoon calm are characters in Irena's Vow, a docudrama about Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish woman who helped save the lives of 12 Jews during World War II and who has been recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. In the show, Feldshuh shifts seamlessly back and forth between the teenage Irena and Irena the septuagenarian who narrates the story, using subtle shifts in dialect to distinguish the two. As is her wont, she also carves out a couple of other characters, among them, an SS officer. The play, which according to Feldshuh continues to pack in audiences, has not survived without its critics. Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times described it as "theatrical hokum" and, perhaps more pertinently, a critic writing in the New York-focused magazine Time Out expressed "queasiness" at the liberties that the author, Dan Gordon, had taken in transforming Opdyke's autobiography (In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer) into a stage play. That critic remarked, "No work of art on this subject should leave you thinking how phony it seemed. To be honest is a duty that Holocaust writers should never forget." When asked about the difficulties of remembering the Holocaust through fiction, Feldshuh concurs: "I am not a child of the Holocaust and I'm not a child of survivors." But it is imperative "to transmit this information" she says, emphasizing our responsibility in keeping the memory alive. Feldshuh, who appeared in the 1978 TV miniseries The Holocaust, describes a youthful encounter with Elie Wiesel, who felt that the movie "diminished this unspeakable crime to soap opera proportions." The actress recalls her response: "Elie, we're not doing the miniseries for you. We're doing the miniseries for people who think the Holocaust is the Horah." TO AUDIENCES who know her, Feldshuh is a master comedienne, one who has walked the tightrope of farce (Lend Me a Tenor) to the broad humor of the borscht belt (Tovah Out of Her Mind). It's a skill she brings to the role of Irena, diverting the overly tragic from becoming merely sentimental with startlingly comic insight. Her performance, like the character she plays, is never overstated nor begging for admiration. While Feldshuh never met the real Irena Opdyke, she studied her by listening to her nine hours of testimony on the Shoah Tapes. She also traveled through Poland and interviewed Christian rescuers who, like Irena, were humble, well brought up and with a very high moral code. "They asked for heroism the way Golda Meir asked for the prime ministership: not at all." When asked how the play speaks to our time, Feldshuh draws a sly comparison. "If we are in the Mediterranean and a Palestinian child is drowning, it is our duty to try and save that child. As does every Jewish doctor." She continues wryly, "I love these comparisons of Eretz [Israel] being like South Africa before apartheid was ended. We should live so long." Striking a more serious pose, Feldshuh talks about the character of Irena, a simple maid who was courageous without any sense of self-importance. It's her hopeful, positive spirit that speaks throughout the play. "If I can do this, think what you can do," Feldshuh says in a voice as delicate as a Degas dancer. While she slips in and out of character(s), she reiterates the play's message. "Heroism is small steps in the right direction taken by good people. It's open to all of us." As for the future of Irena's Vow, Feldshuh confirmed reports of a possible movie. And while she is eager for its fruition, she also laments that it could require a more traditional Hollywood rendering with a "boffo box office star" to play the young Irena. Regardless, she also hopes to tour the show, bringing it to such capitals as London and Sydney. And Israel? "Only if we're invited." While the actress is best known for playing Jewish characters, Feldshuh expresses no fear of being pigeonholed. "Although, if I'm going to be," she laughs, "I wouldn't mind being pigeonholed as a one-woman-show artist who can do all the characters. I'd have no problem with the cast." Before we part, Feldshuh invites yet another of her UN companions. This one is her mother Lillian, who she evokes with a brassy Bronx accent. "Tovah, I rate your parts by how you look. Golda Meir is a zero." "So I played Irena," Tovah answers her conjured mother. "You look gorgeous; just like me."