If I Forget is very much about religion, specifically about Judaism—and yet it isn’t. It’s a complex human story in which you’ll find something relevant and moving, no matter whether you regularly attend a church, a temple or believe in nothing. Steven Levenson’s play at Victory Gardens Theater brings together many threads of family life and angst, including sibling rivalry, caring for aging parents, estate planning, academic freedom, presidential politics, neighborhood redevelopment …. Any of those interest you?
Devon de Mayo’s direction seamlessly moves from a scene in July 2000 (yes, that election!) to February 2001. What happens in between is not only what seemed like a cataclysmic election but the severe decline of the elderly father: Lou Fischer, played by David Darlow.
As the play begins, the siblings have gathered at the family home in a Washington DC neighborhood to celebrate their father’s 75th birthday. Their mother died recently and there are discussions about how Lou is going to manage alone. The family-owned store in an old neighborhood is rented to an immigrant family who are operating it as a dollar store. Sharon (Elizabeth Ledo) has developed a very close relationship with the family. She also has become her father’s caregiver and spends a great deal of time with him. Holly (Gail Shapiro) and her successful attorney husband Howard (Keith Kupferer), live nearby. Michael (Daniel Cantor) and his wife Ellen (Heather Townsend) have just arrived from Brooklyn.
Michael, a professor of Jewish studies at a New York university, hopes to be granted tenure soon. He’s finishing a Holocaust-related book that is less academic than his previous work and some of the details come out throughout the play. His book questions some of the standard beliefs about the Holocaust, its relationship to other genocides, and how American Jews have come to support certain kinds of pro-Israel policies in the Middle East. He has sent the manuscript to his father, who fought in WWII and was with the troops that liberated some of the Nazi death camps. In an emotional scene, Michael and Lou discuss the topic. You view history as an abstraction, Lou tells Michael, while Lou never forgot the horrendous images at Dachau. Michael believes the idea of the Holocaust has come to distort American Jewish life, discourse and culture.
In the six months between acts, there’s a lot of change. In February 2001, the brother/sisters discussion has become more intense. After a stroke, Lou is in a wheelchair and rarely moves or speaks. What kind of care can they arrange for him, when live-in care is so expensive? Both Sharon and Michael have modest incomes but Howard is a successful lawyer and they assume could afford to provide more. Holly wants to launch an interior design business and has plans for the store space involving expensive renovation and upgrading. But Howard’s financial situation has changed dramatically. And Sharon won’t accept any plan that involves evicting the Guatemalan family or raising their low rent. Oh and Michael’s writings have caused a scandal in academia.
If I Forget weaves these complexities together and creates a rich tapestry for a theater production. For viewers, it might be like the blind men describing the elephant. You might find one or another thread to be the main story, depending on your own interests and situation. Are you dealing with aging parents? Are you a firm believer in academic freedom? What do you think it means to be Jewish? Do you relish a debate about the politics of the Middle East? How would you protect the rights of families in changing neighborhoods?
The cast of If I Forget does a stirring job with this wealth of material and De Mayo’s direction makes the most of their talent. Cantor, Shapiro and Ledo are particularly strong as the three siblings and Kupferer proves he is a Chicago stalwart. Andrew Boyce’s split-level scenic design makes transitions between scenes work smoothly. Lighting is by Heather Sparling and sound by Kevin O’Donnell. Izumi Inaba handles costume design.
If I Forget is a personal play for playwright Levenson, who grew up in the DC suburbs. His other works include Dear Evan Hanson,The Language of Trees and The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin. He was also a writer for the Showtime series, “Masters of Sex.” The title of the play comes from Psalm 137.
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee,
let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth…
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed:
happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth
thy little ones against the stones.
If I Forget continues at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., through July 7. Running time is 2.25 hours including one intermission. Tickets are $27-$60 for performances Tuesday-Sunday.