Studio Theater’s production of If I Forget, the new drama by Steven Levenson (of Dear Evan Hansen fame), is a meaty family drama that will leave many feeling uncomfortable recognition as siblings wound and reconcile in rapid rotation over questions of personal and religious identity and affinity. Devised as a reflection on Jewish culture at the collapse of the Camp David Summit in 2000, the same questions plague the global quest for peace and familial kitchen sink colloquies: How does the past instruct who we are? Potently emotional, provocatively intellectual, and bleakly humorous, If I Forgetwill send you onto the streets stumbling and uncertain, mired in swirling debate about what can never be forgotten and what should be left behind.
Washingtonians will find themselves right at home with the Jewish upper middle class Fischer family of Tenleytown, disparaging the intersection at Wisconsin and Albemarle (nothing has changed) and marveling at 14thStreet’s gentrification (ditto). Yet regardless of zip code, anyone with family will empathize with the tension of kinship stretched across personal and political canvases. Designer Debra Booth’s classic two story suburban cutaway set is the visual quintessence of the divided, yet intertwined Fischer family. Costumes by Helen Huang subtly reinforce character divergences.
Director Matt Torney has elicited strong, nuanced performances from the whole cast. Anti-religious Jewish studies professor Michael (Jonathan Goldstein) returns to his DC home mired in controversy arising from his inflammatory book repudiating the “Never Again” mantra of post-Holocaust Judaism. Tetchy, clever older sister Holly (Susan Rome) ricochets between droll designer-bag-toting eldest “sistriarch” and woman adrift, still seeking her own identity. Sharon (Robin Abramson) is the beleaguered youngest, heart on her sleeve, desperately trying to be truly seen. The siblings spar and synthesize in ways both touching and authentic. Rounding out the table are Julie-Ann Elliott as Michael’s earnest wife Ellen, Paul Morella as Holly’s affably obtuse husband Howard, and Joshua Otten as Holly’s awkward teenaged son Joey. Michael and Ellen’s troubled absent daughter Abby has a large off-stage presence.
The actors deftly manage a challenging script, as the clan grapples with bruising disagreements over Israel. In a searing speech, Michael argues that permitting the specter of the “six million” to persistently inform the Jewish identity, Israel, and politics, is a disservice to a formerly multidimensional tribe. Pointing to Serbia and Rwanda as modern genocide, Michael argues the toxicity of nationalism is the real lesson of the Holocaust, not merely anti-Semitism. Powerful and erudite, the piercing contention would unsettle any on the continuum from goy to Zionist, and leaves the audience squirming. Levenson might have dropped the mic at that point, until in the quiet of the night, veteran patriarch Lou (Richard Fancy) slowly, searingly unpacks his recollection of liberating Dachau as a Jewish-American GI in World War II. Can you really afford to forget? I’ve rarely seen a more powerful onstage moment.
Despite the intellectual twin towers of dogma between which Levenson pinions modern Jewish identity, to focus overmuch on the religious debate imperils the true power of the play – the dynamics of family. Similarly, while the nut of the “plot” – an omnipresent quarrel about inheritance and disposition of family real estate – is annexed to this question, its resolution is secondary to the road there. Levenson excels at flaying the tension beneath the family skin. All the incendiary ingredients are mixed in – birth order, gender, income disparity, shifting allegiances. Siblings conflict and conflate. Conversations open and coalitions form and collapse with “Don’t tell….” Every character makes reasonable and unreasonable arguments. Every character is both true and hoisted on the petard of his or her own naval-gazing.
The play works best with the authenticity of family conflict, and accepting that neither the characters nor Levenson have answers to the hard questions. It stumbles over certain subplots that demand an unrealistic suspension of disbelief, and its failure to address its inherent chauvinism and Michael’s myopic bull-in-a-china-shop bomb flinging (all the “idea” voices are male and the “emotion” voices female). While I didn’t agree with Levenson’s decision to “resolve” the plot challenge involving the family store (it might have been better as a hanging chad), and a jarring mystical closing scene, I nonetheless left the theater awed by the rigor and depth of the script as a whole.
There’s no question that you won’t forget this play or performance. In fact you’ll be haunted by many hours reflection on what we should, and should not, forget. Just don’t disremember to get your tickets before If I Forget has left the stage.
If I Forgetis playing at Studio Theater (1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005) through October 21, 2018. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission. For information or tickets, call the box office at 202.232.7267, or click here.
Photos credit Carol Rosegg