WASHINGTON D.C. – In “If I Forget,” Steven Levenson’s family drama of what it means to be an American Jew in the 21st Century, no topic is off limit. So be prepared for a stimulating and provocative take on personal and political issues ranging from assimilation, to religious and cultural Judaism, to whose responsibility is it when a parent ages and needs full-time care.
At the deepest level, however, “If I Forget” specifically asks what are we willing to sacrifice or to forgive and forget from the past in order to move forward with our life today?
Set in July 2000, just as the Gore/Bush/Nader U.S. Presidential Election is in progress and the Israel-Palestine Camp David peace talks are falling apart, the play focuses on a modern Jewish family living in Tenleytown in D.C. The family matriarch has died, and the Fischer family is gathering to celebrate the 75th birthday of elder patriarch Lou, a former clothing store owner and World War II veteran.
In the first act, we are introduced to son Michael, a Jewish studies professor and atheist (passionately played by Jonathan Goldstein) and his wife Ellen (Julie-Ann Elliott). The two discuss their concerns and hopes for their daughter Abby, an emotionally troubled college student, who is on a Birthright trip to Jerusalem, excited to learn about her heritage.
It is the worst time to be in the Middle East in 28 years, but Michael is equally concerned about Abby’s new found interest in Judaism, as she was raised as a non-practicing Jew. This sets up the heated and ideological debates around Judaism that will erupt later in the play
Enter Holly, Michael’s sharp-witted sister (Susan Rome) and husband/lawyer Howard (Paul Morella), followed by martyred sister, Sharon (Robin Abramson), who was the mother’s main caretaker, putting her own life on hold for two years.
While catching up, the siblings learn that Michael is on track to receive tenure, but also about his soon to be published book, “Forgetting the Holocaust,” with its controversial statements about Israel and the Jewish people. Considered inflammatory by many, the manuscript quickly pits Michael against his two sisters and father, who received a copy, but never acknowledged it.
Levenson, a Bethesda native and the Tony Award-winning playwright of “Dear Evan Hansen”, peppers the remainder of the first act with heated political arguments about the Middle East, with stories on the region on CNN blaring on the family’s TV. Deeper issues fuel their debates, including Jews’ relationship with American political candidates as well as Jews’ relationship to Israel and the Israeli government.
Amidst this scenario, Michael passionately explains that he is asking his family to “forget the Holocaust,” as a way of healing the past, however Lou emotionally illustrates the importance of remembrance. Detailing how he, as a Jewish American GI, helped to liberate Dachau, an infamous Nazi concentration camp, Lou movingly tells about the dead bodies that were found stacked upon each other in buildings and how American troops stood by watching as freed, angry and, emaciated Jews bashed in the heads of their German captors. The moment is devastating and chilling.
In act two, the action fast forwards seven months later and Lou has suffered a stroke and is wheel-chair bound. Michael and Howard both have undergone financial losses and the family is arguing over how to pay for his care, bringing up their long-held 14th Street property, now worth millions.
On one hand, the debate ranges around whether the property, a cherished legacy, now rented cheaply as a bodega by a Guatemalan family, should stay in the family and be passed on to the children and grandchildren. Or, because of the financial difficulties facing the family, should the property be sold, sacrificing long-held memories, but allowing individuals to get a financial hold on their life?.
Throughout, Studio Theatre’s Associate Artistic Director Matt Toney directs with a sure hand, allowing the cast to portray with unflinching honesty the family’s feelings and thoughts around these and other topics, such as which presidential candidate will be in the interest of the Jewish people or whether some Jews make a business of the holocaust through means that constantly re-tell its story.
Levenson personalizes the D.C. setting by bringing up events and scenarios that local audiences easily will relate to. At one point, Lou tells how his family’s 14th Street store sold clothes to black shoppers when others would not, and their fear for the store when riots occurred after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When daughter Holly suggests selling the property to her so that she can open an interior design studio, Sharon argues that the move will oust the Guatemalan family, causing them to be another victim of the city’s gentrification.
“If I Forget” runs for two hours and 45 minutes and its rich dialogue and superb acting will keep theater goers thoroughly engaged. Its only weak link is the underdevelopment of the character Joey, Holly’s teen son, played stiffly by Joshua Otten. While we see a family at odds, their undeniably close bond shines throughout as they come to peace with their Jewish history and past. It runs through Oct. 21.