IF I FORGET - Barrington Stage Company
The first act of “If I Forget” is perhaps the best composed and dynamically plotted piece of theatre with ensemble acting the Berkshires has seen so far this season. It’s summer 2000 (election year Bush v. Gore, remember how that doozy turned out?). Agnostic, professor of Jewish Studies, Michael Fisher (J. Anthony Crane) and his non-practicing Christian wife Ellen (Kathleen Wise) visit his father’s home in a white, middle-class section of Washington DC a year after his mother's death. Michael expects to be awarded university tenure, although there’s some brewing political opposition to his upcoming book, “Forgetting the Holocaust”, in which he theorizes, provocatively, Jews have lost their historic traditions by allowing themselves to be identified solely with the Holocaust. The Fishers have an emotionally challenged, college-age daughter who is on study in Jerusalem.
Michael’s sisters, Holly (Laura Jordan) and Sharon (Lena Kaminsky) don’t value Michael’s intellectualism much, and think less of his ideas about Jewish history and Israel politics the more they learn about his book, a draft copy of which he had sent his ailing 75 year-old father Lou (Robert Zuckerman). Holly’s an amateur interior designer, comfortably affluent in second marriage to financier Howard Kilberg (Mitch Greenberg) whose politics go no further than voting Republican no matter what. Holly spends most of her time nagging her lazy teenage son, Joey (Isaac Josephthal) who wears his jeans below his butt. Sharon, a school teacher, takes care of Dad and plays noblesse oblige to the Latinos who rent the storefront in Black downtown Washington still owned by Dad that had been the family’s clothing store business for two generations. Dad looks back to where he started: his people were Russian Jews, his wife's German.
Cleverly crafted by playwright Steven Levenson, who won a Tony for the book of the musical “Dear Evan Hansen”, “If I Forget” is remarkably sophisticated in unpacking not only intra-personal family conflict but also historical and generational tensions between secular and religious Jewish traditions. Michael argues, to his family’s discomfort (even though they are non practicing Jews), that Zionism, which started out as non-religious movement, has become synonymous with Judaism. Confronting his father, he points out that in the Sixties when many secular Jews were active in civil rights, his family, as white merchants in an all Black neighborhood, was all about business. Dad protests the store's pricing was always fair; it all fell apart he proclaims “when Martin Luther King got shot” (The family real estate was saved from being torched in the 1968 riots.)
The Fisher family ante gets upped. Levenson concludes the first act, with a solemn and emotional wallop; Dad, a WWII veteran, reveals, for first time in his life, father to son, his most horrific memories as a US serviceman in Germany at the war's end. Dad rips it wide open: So you think you know about the Holocaust, kid? Don't tell me about history.
With a plot this drama-rich, expectations for what happens run high but Act 2, set six months later, sadly disappoints. Dad requires home care. Michael’s academic fortunes get complicated. A plot development involving Michael’s brother-in-law Howard doesn’t ring true, unlike everything that’s been front-loaded in Act 1. The storyline involving Michael and Ellen’s daughter veers to the melodramatic as does a subplot with young sister Sharon. Then, to conclude, the story suddenly careens into the abstract, with a communal, spiritual evocation.
Still, “If I Forget” for its first half is a master class in playwriting and ensemble acting. Levenson’s dialogue is especially spot-on, character specific. Never for a moment did I not believe character relationships, especially the sibling dynamic between Michael, Holly and Sharon. (As an only and sometimes eggheady brother, I know what it’s like to get caught in the crossfire of two sisters.) Special kudos to Ms. Jordan as pain-in-the-ass sister Holly and to Mr. Crane, who with the most demanding role as Michael, makes credible, beginning to end, the burden of being son, brother, husband and father, and the quiet tragedy of a man trapped between the history he interprets and the reality he endures.