Finding herself

By Jerry Tallmer

Tovah Feldshuh is known for playing strong, real-life women

On a fine sunny Friday in her 35th year as one of America’s most admired and busiest actresses Off-Broadway, on Broadway, on television, in films, or anywhere, Tovah Feldshuh rounded out her afternoon with 30 minutes on the elliptical machine, to work up a sweat; lifted 10-pound weights for half an hour then swam 40 laps before show time.

“I try to stay relaxed on stage,” Feldshuh says.

In her time she has embodied such real-life personages as Sarah Bernhardt, Sophie Tucker, Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Stella Adler, three of the queens of Henry VIII, and, most notably—for several years in several countries—Golda Meir. But now the person she was portraying, in a play called Irena’s Vow, was the little-known Irene Gut Opdyke, a blonde blue-eyed Polish Catholic “righteous gentile” memorialized at Vad Yashem (right next to Oskar Schindler) for having as a young woman saved the lives of a dozen Jews she’d hidden in a cellar in the Nazi-occupied Ukraine, under the nose of the German officer for whom she was laboring as housekeeper.

“I play her as a 70-year-old and as an 18-year-old and as she, Irena, plays certain other characters,” Feldshuh says as we’re headed down the FDR Drive toward the Baruch Performing Arts Center where, before its scheduled opening on Broadway this month, she and nine other actors put flesh and blood into Dan Gordon’s drama about Irena Gut.

“I got this part through love, through friendship,” Feldshuh says. In her memorization of scripts she’s sometimes had as a “key line tester” a man named John Stanisci. “When he got tired of sitting around, he went out, and with Tom Ryan, founded their own Invictus company. Two years ago they came and asked me to a reading of Irena’s Vow. You know what Golda Meir says: ‘There are friends who love you, and friends who show up.’ ”

Two beats. “I show up.”

Tovah Feldshuh’s been showing up ever since—well, I was going to write December 27, 1952, the birthdate in New York City of Terri Sue (Tovah) Feldshuh, but let’s just say since Interlochen Music Camp, Michigan, a few years after that. Here, in the car conveying her to her night’s work, she bursts into that camp’s anthem: “Sound the call to dear old Interlochen … ”

What ever happened to Terri Sue Feldshuh?

“I fell in love with a Christian boy, Michael Fairchild, who didn’t want to kiss a Terri Sue. He said: ‘Terri Sue doesn’t fit you at all. What’s that other name of yours? Tovah? Now that’s a name!”

At Sarah Lawrence one of her teachers was Joseph Chaikin, beloved director-founder of the Open Theater. Came out of SL with a McKnight Fellowship to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where they soon found out she could sing and dance, “though what was important there was Iambic Pentameter …”

Iambic Pentameter or no Iambic Pentameter, “when they did a musical Cyrano, it was: ‘Oh, get that Tovah girl, she can sing and dance.’ I played the Food Seller – came out singing: ‘Oranges! Pomegranates! Lemonade!’ I can remember it like yesterday. Pretty thrilling,” she says. “I didn’t understand how lucky I was. I got to New York.” She also landed on Broadway in that musical, with Christopher Plummer as its star. Like shot out of a cannon, after two years carrying spears at the Guthrie. This was 1973.

“In 1974 Robert Kalfin cast me as Yentl, the Yeshiva boy. That’s when I won my Obie Award. Melba Moore was presenting it to me. She couldn’t figure my name. Said: ‘Todo? Tobo? Tooovah? Oh hell, girl, come up and get it!’ The next year, 1975, we did Yentl on Broadway. I was 23. A big, big fat break.”

Garson Kanin had seen her as Yentl Off-Broadway and put her in Dreyfus in Rehearsal, a play by France’s Jean-Claude Grumberg, as adapted by Kanin, about a Polish Jewish acting company doing a play in Warsaw about Alfred Dreyfus. It ran for 15 performances on Broadway.

“Ruth Gordon (Mrs. Kanin) was the lead, I was the ingénue. Got the part without having to audition. Sam Levene was in it.”

A lot of people beside Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon had come to see her Yentl. She rattles off the names: “Mayor Beame … Helen Hayes … Mary Martin … Rex Harrison … Cheryl Crawford …”

And one other: a lawyer named Andrew Levy. “February 16, 1976, a Washington’s Birthday matinee. He was allowed to come backstage because he was my best friend from music camp’s older brother.” When Tovah Feldshuh and Andrew Levy got married, Ruth Gordon was maid of honor.

The Levy-Feldshuh offspring are Garson Brandon Levy, 25, a Harvard and Oxford graduate who’s in something called financial economics, and Amanda Claire Levy, 20, physics major at MIT.

Tovah’s father was a litigator named Sidney Feldshuh. “I was mad about him,” she says. Her mother, Lily Feldshuh, 97, is still very much with us. “My mother rates my parts by how I look. ‘Tovah, Golda Meir is a zero!’ ”

Irena Gut Opdyke died at 85 in May 2003. Tovah never met her—“but I met her daughter, Jeanie (Jeanie Opdyke Smith), who flew in to see the show and then said to me: ‘Thank you for bringing my mommy back.’

“She told me that she herself didn’t know about her mother’s heroism until she, Jeanie, was 14 years old. What I learned from her about her mother was that Irena had lied about her age. When all this was happening”—hiding those Jews under the Nazis’ noses—“Irena was not 17, she was 21. She had, however (as in the play) been raped by nine Russian soldiers while in her teens.”

It was while researching her role in Irena’s Vow that Tovah happened onto some of her own roots.

“When I said I was going to Borschiv, in Tarnopol province in the Ukraine [where Irena hid those twelve Jews in that cellar], a colleague of my husband’s, Alan Rausch, said: ‘Borshiv? My grandfather worked for a wealthy man in Borschiv, a Jew named Moishe Feldshuh who owned a big spirits business.’ ”

Sure enough, when she got to Borschiv in the Ukraine—“all these towns spell their names three different ways”—there it was, what had once been the Moishe Feldshuh alcoholic spirits factory along with some shops he’d owned. “There was even an ‘M.F. 1929’ in big letters in the concrete wall. In looking for Irene, I found myself.”

Even if Tovah Feldshuh’s mama thinks her daughter’s Golda Meir rated a zero, that daughter’s various personae over the years, from Yentl to Golda to Irena to whatever’s next, has helped many people in more than one country to find more than a bit of themselves.

Following its run Off Broadway, Irena’s Vow will open on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre (219 West 48th Street) on March 29. Previews begin March 10. Tickets are $41-98. 212-239-6200, irenasvow.com