Four-time Tony nominee and three-time Drama Desk Award-winner Tovah Feldshuh has returned to Broadway, starring in the gripping play Irena’s Vow. The Westchester native—Feldshuh was raised in Scarsdale and graduated from Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville—was last seen on the Avenue in 2005 as Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony, the longest running one-woman play in Broadway history. Irena’s Vow, at the Walter Kerr Theatre, sheds light on little known World War II housekeeper-turned-heroine Irena Gut Opdyke, who risked her own life to save 12 Jewish refugees during the German occupation of Poland. Here, Feldshuh chats with us about Westchester, the Great White Way, what’s in a name—and why she changed hers.
Q: How does growing up in Westchester differ from growing up in Manhattan, as your own children did?
In New York City when it rains, you go down the street to play in the Museum of Natural History.
Q: How does it feel to now portray a Catholic heroine?
Fantastic! When first approached, I said, ‘Please don’t tell me it’s another Jewish mother! I love them, but I’ve played so many.’ No person wants to be pigeonholed.
Q: When and why did you change your birth name, Terri Sue, to Tovah?
I fell in love and changed it for a boy at college—and he wasn’t even Jewish! He didn’t think I looked or sounded like a ‘Terri Sue’ and asked me what else I was called so I said Tovah, which was my Hebrew name in Sunday school. I did not realize then that the full name ‘Tovah Feldshuh’ would be regarded as so ethnic.
Q: Anyone ever advise you to change your name so it’s less Jewish-sounding?
Yes, David Merrick said, ‘This name can never go on a marquee.’ Thankfully, he was wrong. Looking back, perhaps I should have kept ‘Terri’ and gone from ‘Feldshuh’ to ‘Fairchild.’ And who knows what my career would have been had I gone with that name. Frankly, changing my name originally from ‘Terri’ to ‘Tovah’ brought me tremendous luck.
Q: What message do you hope Irena’s Vow audiences walk away with?
That this is an ordinary human being under extraordinary circumstances doing extraordinary things. If she could do this, think what you can do.
Q. How would you describe Irena’s Vow to someone who is thinking about seeing it?
One woman’s courageous choice above all odds.
Q. What was it like performing Irena’s Vow at the UN in January in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day?
I was surprised by how down-to-earth everyone was; everyone wants to make a difference and to matter. It was wonderful to be insulated in that building the way the earth should be—a mix of races, accents, colors, etc.
Q. How are you and Irena, the character you play, alike?
I would hope that I would do what she did if someone was in trouble— to have the same courage and wisdom. Irena’s full belief in God and Catholicism helped to guide her and I too believe in God’s spark and my faith as a Jew.
Q. How was the 18-year-old Irena different from the 18-year-old Tovah
At 18, she was frightened of the terrifying life around her while I was on easy street, going to Sarah Lawrence.
Q. What attracted you to this project?
The part was superb.
Q. Is Irena still alive? If not, were you able to contact any of her family members?
Irena is dead but I am in contact with her daughter Jeannie Opdyke Smith who gave me wonderful insight into the character.
Q. What’s next?
I’d love to star in a Broadway musical. And I’m acquiring the rights for Golda and hope to take it around the world for the next quarter of a century.
Q. What’s your dream role?
I’m playing them now, these two roles. I still tour as Golda in Golda’s Balcony and now I also play Irena on Broadway.
Q. Any other public figure you’d like to play?
St. Joan—but I’ve probably missed out on the opportunity to play a young obsessed wacko from France.