Did Dan Gordon, whose books bore a celestial seal with Postcards From Heaven and whose directing credits included TV's road warrior, "Highway to Heaven," get heavenly messages on his highway to home some 20 years ago?
In walk a rabbi, a minister and a priest … "I was driving home in L.A., listening to this religious radio program," featuring a panel of the three aforementioned amigos, he recalls of that dramatic drive time in the late 1980s/early '90s, "and the host started talking with another guest; he had on Irena."
And what Gordon heard was an earful of history and the hungering capacity of the heart to heal and help.
Now that drive-time drama he listened to has provided a high way of making a mark on Broadway: "Irena's Vow," a one-act intermissionless 90-minute drama about the many acts of kindness shown by Irena Gut — later to be Irena Gut Opdyke — a stunning young Polish Catholic Holocaust hero, stuns on stage. It is here where that radio guest of so many years ago drives home her own story of helping burn a hole through the Holocaust of hate she witnessed.
Opening night at the Walter Kerr Theatre is March 29, and the role provides an opening for acclaimed actress Tovah Feldshuh's ferocious feel for tough tenderness and fiery finesse. It also opens a window on the wizardry of writer Dan Gordon, who's lived through hurricanes of the heart — he scripted the screenplay about boxer and convicted killer Hurricane Carter's battle for justice in the courts, where his murder verdict was ultimately overturned — and turned his attention to celestial battles in "The Celestine Prophecy."
But who could predict that his own highway to heaven would run through the killing fields that were the Holocaust?
"At its core," he explains of "Irena's Vow," "this is a story of incredible faith," one which he continued listening to even after his road trip had ended. "I sat in my driveway and listened to this woman with the Zsa Zsa Gabor voice on the other end."
It was only the beginning, he says, of "a love affair of the heart; Irena became like a second mother to me."
She also became a surrogate savior to 12 Jewish refugees whom she hid from the Nazis, even as she worked as a Nazi officer's housekeeper.
Keep the faith? She did so right under the evil eyes of her employer, maintaining the ruse for two years until it was ruptured by an accidental act of carelessness.
The vowel she demanded of herself was an "I" — vowing to put herself at the center of the universe of others to save them.
"She had witnessed a child having his brains bashed out" by the Nazis, says the writer, "and she did nothing. She was wise enough to know that there was nothing to be done for the child."
But that guilt-edged memory had a guile all its own.
"She made a vow — though she was a devout Catholic, it was a vow with a very Jewish philosophy — that God does not ask one to do the impossible and, if so, she will do from then on whatever she could to save lives."
Years later, when asked why she risked so much for what the Nazis would consider a dirty dozen Jews, she charmed back an answer. "She said, 'I was too stupid to know better.' "
But how she was able to outwit the Nazis in a true-grit drama of survivors?
"I took it on faith," she told Gordon. "Her belief was, 'I'll give it up to God.' "
What she gave was a lifeline to the 12 Jews. And a reconnect for the writer, recalling his days battling the enemy as an Israeli — Gordon has dual American-Israeli citizenship — in the duel that was the Yom Kippur War.
"It was during a moment that I knew I was going to be killed" in combat, he recalls. "And I thought, 'Okay, I'll give it up to God.' And I knew then nothing would happen."
In the chaos that was the blood-soaked killing field of dunes, "I was the calmest I had ever been in my life," he says.
Bomb blast from the past: There were echoes of that same situation four different times, ne explains, "when I fought in the Lebanon war in 2006, when I knew nothing would happen to me — no harm would come to me."
"I was in Katyusha Alley," he says of the perilous war zone. "I started thinking that, yes, I am literally in the valley of the shadow of death, and I fear no evil."
Nothing to fear but fear itself — of not following through. As it happens, he is fulfilling a promise to Irena.
"Her greatest fear was, 'Who will tell the children?' And as she was dying" — the Holocaust hero passed away six years ago — "that's when the first reading of the play took place."
Irena could read its future, as echoes of its impact were on the line. "I held the cell phone up to her ear so she could hear the applause," relates Gordon. "The next day, she died."
And the youngster who "ran away from home to Israel as a kid — with my family's consent" — not to join the circus, but the kindly carnival atmosphere he found in a kibbutz, where "my family, Chanan and Miriam Greenwald, were as much parents as my own, Abrash and Goddess Gordon" — is now taking a run at bringing one of Israel's rightfully revered Righteous Gentiles to Broadway.
It is where he continues to reaffirm the good-news/bad-news notices he received from his literature mentor at the kibbutz, Shlomo Kanriel, "my rabbi and teacher."
"He said, 'I have terrible news for you. I think you are a writer'; it was one of the greatest heartaches of his life that he was not. He could teach it, but not write."
The good news?
He taught his American-Israeli ward a way with words.
Now, Dan Gordon himself teaches, not just from the stage but from the school grounds — as co-founder of the Zaki Gordon Institute in Arizona.
And that leaves the storyteller with a personal story to tell: "The new president of the college," with which the writing institute is affiliated, "had been given a building for a new school."
After serendipitously meeting and chatting with Gordon, her seatmate on an air flight, she turned the keys of the school — and its future — over to him as a writing center. "And I knew I would accept as long as I could name the school after my son."
Done deal — but, as with any witty writer's plot, one with a twist: "She told me that everything she had accomplished in life she owed to her mentor."
His name: Zach Gordon, nearly the same as Dan's boy, also a writer. Bashert?
"I believe in that very notion, and I also believe God led me to Irena so her story can be told."
And it is told every night at the Walter Kerr — and soon on the silver screen, where Gordon's adaptation is in place with another Jewish star, Scarlett Johansson, being considered for the role of Irena in flashbacks.
Gordon is flush with flashes of brilliance, but he gives credit where credit's due: Flash forward to opening night, where the ultimate scenic designer has set up shop. "We can't always see the designs of life," contends Gordon, "but you have to know that there is a Designer."