Memory changes. The ways we regard memories — individual and collective — change. This message comes at you fast and strong in Steven Levenson's new play, If I Forget, at the Laura Pels Theater. While the playwright's Dear Evan Hansen enjoys an esteemed Broadway run, Levenson now engrosses audiences confronting the contemporary world's arresting sociopolitical issues and brings them firmly into the heart of one family.
Fluidly directed by Daniel Sullivan, Levenson presents the Fischer family, gathered in the old family home to celebrate their ailing father's 75th birthday. The time periods are July 2000 and February 2001 — after the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at Camp David, and pre-9/11.
The family's only son, Michael, a college professor of Jewish Studies, has just finished his book on Jewish cultural heritage where he urges Jews to downplay the Holocaust and Israel. Controversial, to be sure, and later wreaking havoc socially and academically.
As Michael, Jeremy Shamos is a stand-out, fearless in his convictions but needing his father's praise. He dedicates the work, about to be published, to his father, Lou (Larry Bryggman), who was a World War II veteran. Months ago, he had sent his father a galley of the book, but Lou never responded. A highlight moment comes when Michael delivers a passionate monologue about his book's focus, spurring audience applause. Lou soon has a response of his own.
As Lou, Bryggman does not have much to say, but when he does speaks with an opposing message to Michael about his entering Dachau. His words bring a devastating end to Act I.
Act II opens one week after Lou is paralyzed by a stroke, adding another layer of family demands and self-examinations. Lou's three children, Michael, Holly and Sharon, are worried about their father's health and financial well-being, their outrage about Michael's new work, and their own personal stresses. They harbor shared, often clashing memories of their family history, their religion and Jewish heritage.
The eldest sibling, Holly, played with self-centered snap and humor by Kate Walsh, is more concerned with her new career plans as an interior decorator. The youngest and most religious of the three, Sharon (Maria Dizzie), is a school-teacher who has been care-taker to their father, and relishes in the role of martyr even as she is betrayed by her cantor and boyfriend.
All three have opposing ideas about the failing family business, a store in a down-market area. Revitalizing it would preserve a family tradition, but selling would bring in cash they all can use.
Secondary characters add color as well as gravitas. Michael's supportive wife, Ellen, is seamlessly portrayed by Tasha Lawrence. A social worker, Ellen is usually a family peace-maker, but in this situation, she is unable to bring about any conciliation between Michael and his sisters. She and Michael are also worried about the couple's mentally troubled daughter, Anna. Anna never physically appears in the play, but her existence enhances the relationship between her parents.
Holly's wealthy husband, Howard, played by Gary Wilmes, stands behind his authoritative wife until his own foolish actions threaten their well-being. Their son, Joey (Seth Steinberg), is a detached teen who turns out to know more than anyone realizes.
One might say that Levenson's familial dynamic is somewhat overstuffed with unnecessary sub-plots, yet this remains a powerful drama with crisply defined characters and sharply counterbalanced with humor. Derek McLane's rotating two-tiered set lighted by Kenneth Posner displays a comfortable life-style of a family in a Washington D.C. suburb. Jess Goldstein's costumes neatly contrast Holly's chic style with Sharon's tee shirts and loose pants.
A provocative production where boldly honest performances explore beliefs and compromises, If I Forget is not an easy play to forget. Nor should it be.