If I Forget
At The Victory Gardens Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – The American theater does not lack for dramas about dysfunctional families, especially dysfunctional Jewish American families. But there is always room for one more if it is as well written and brilliantly acted and staged as “If I Forget” at the Victory Gardens Theater.
“If I Forget” was warmly received when it opened off Broadway in 2017. The playwright is Steven Levenson, who has gone on to enormous success as the book writer for the hit Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen.”
“If I Forget” is set in the upper middle class home of the Fischer family in Washington, D.C. The action takes place on June 29, 2000 (act I) and Feb. 18, 2001 (act II). The on stage Fischers consist of 75-year old Lou Fischer, his three adult children Michael, Holly, and Sharon, Michael’s wife Ellen, Holly’s husband Howard, and Holly and Howard’s teenage son Joey. Michael and Ellen’s daughter Abby never appears on stage but becomes a significant figure in the narrative.
The play is loaded to the brim with attention-getting storylines. There is the exploration of Jewish-American identity and tradition, the centrality of the Holocaust in the modern Jewish American mindset, and turbulence of Israeli-Palestinian relations. These broad themes are interwoven with such domestic issues as adultery, the difficulty of caring for an ailing parent, and dealing with a mentally ill child.
The play’s subject matter may be serious but Levenson writes his dialogue with a sure, deft touch that admits plenty of comedy, especially the sarcastic banter that flows throughout the first act. There isn’t much that’s funny in the second act but Levenson has the skills to shift emotional gears to a high without diminishing the dialogue’s literacy and realism.
Michael Fischer is a professor of Jewish studies at a local university. He is up for highly prized tenure but he is making difficulties for himself by writing a controversial book that claims some Jewish-American leaders have misused the Holocaust to pervert Jewish-American Judaism into “a religion and a culture, frankly of death and death worship.” He laments what he sees as the loss of purpose in Jewish-American life as once demonstrated by Jewish radicalism and support for the civil rights movement. “”We’re white people now, we’re respectable. We’re nothing, nothing at all.”
Michael further accuses Jewish leaders of manipulating the memory of the Holocaust for pro-Israel political advantage. Michael presents his viewpoint with articulate passion, though the controversial subject doesn’t seem like an appropriate choice for teacher seeking lifetime tenure from what surely is a conservative board of his academic peers. But on opening night, a number of audience members applauded Michael at the end of his prickly symbolic view of the Holocaust, though I suspect some members of the audience silently were offended.
Credit the playwright with playing a balanced hand in probing the Holocaust issue. Levenson follows Michael’s presentation with the elderly Lou’s searing monologue recounting his experience as one of the first American troops to liberate a German concentration camp. Lou’s description of the horrors he saw had to send a chill through every spectator in the theater. Lou accuses Michael of turning the Holocaust into an abstraction, crying “there are no abstractions anymore.”
In the second act, fissures are exposed within the family, some hidden beneath the everyday fabric of family life. The unmarried Sharon feels unappreciated and over-utilized by her two siblings, thrusting her into being the primary caregiver for their ailing father because she is Lou’s one unmarried child (their mother had died several years earlier). Howard reveals he had been having a tawdry affair with an eastern European prostitute that has put the family in an unmanageable financial hole. The solution to that predicament, Michael states, can only come from the sale of a store that has been in the family for generation, a symbol of tradition and continuity for the Fischers. Sharon is outraged by the suggestion that the store should be sold. The young Joey asks what his inheritance will be if the store leaves family control.
“If I Forget” does not end comfortably. Levenson is too honest a writer to let his characters off the hook for their assorted flaws and bad luck. In an elegiac final scene, the playwright seems to cast his vote for the tradition, though there is a recognition that all traditions eventually will pass into nothingness.
The Victory Gardens cast is stocked with actors from the Chicagoland theater A list. They make every character believable without ever veering into melodrama, preaching, or sentimentality. Every actor is so right for his or her character that I couldn’t imagine the play being done in any other way. Levenson must surely recognize that he is a lucky playwright to have his characters rendered so credibly, never losing their way in the plot-heavy narrative.
Daniel Cantor is outstanding as Michael, opinionated and a bit self centered but basically sympathetic. Gail Shapiro moves through the play with warmth and wit, and her revulsion at her husband’s betrayal is scorching. Elizabeth Ledo paints a super emotional picture of a woman who feels life has dealt her a bad hand and Sharon feels she is on the cusp of her first happiness in a relationship when the adultery scandal shatters the family. She explodes in concealed but long held resentment. A bravo turn by the actor David Darlow, one of the great eminences in area theater, evokes the pathos of ailing old age with understated realism as Lou, and his concentration camp speech is the most stirring moment in a production full of emotional peaks. Heather Townsend as Ellen and Alec Boyd as Joey round out the ensemble with fine performances in less showy roles.
The production is enriched by a splendid two level house set designed by Andrew Boyce that looks like Victory Gardens could profitably rent it out at the end of the run. Izumi Inaba’s informal costume designs are just right for each character. Heather Sparling’s lighting design gently ushers the action from scene to scene. Kevin O’Donnell’s sound design completes a physical production that creates a perfect visual and aural palette for the action.
“If I Forget” is a play of such insight, intelligence, and substance that it’s a shame the production is scheduled to run only until July 7, only three weeks after its opening night. Surely an audience exists that can sustain a longer run for a drama this relevant and this entertaining.
The show gets a rating of
“If I Forget” runs through July 7 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $27 to $60. Call 773 871 3000 or visit www.victorygardenbs.org.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. June 2019
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