Steven Levenson’s 2017 play seems to share some DNA with several other sprawling family dramas of the stage. Like Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” “If I Forget” reunites several generations of a clan following a parent’s death. The bilevel set might recall Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” which similarly depicts the stress of caring for elders when they become infirm. And as in Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” Levenson’s plot involves one family member’s plans to publish a book that would scandalize their relatives.
And those are just examples from the 21st century; reach back further to the works of Horton Foote, Tennessee Williams or Lillian Hellman — or further still to Ibsen or Chekhov — and “If I Forget” can look like the latest genealogical addition to a long dramatic lineage.
When: Through July 7
Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $27 – $60
Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission
Unlike Baitz’s Reagan-esque California WASPs, Letts’ acidic Oklahomans or Karam’s aspirational Irish Catholics, though, the DNA of Levenson’s Fischer family is decidedly Jewish. And though few of the characters onstage are particularly observant, big questions about the American Jewish experience loom large in their lives.
In the first act, set in the summer of 2000, the Fischers are gathered to celebrate the 75th birthday of patriarch Lou (David Darlow), now a widower after the passing of his wife following a long battle with cancer. Signs of her and her illness still linger around Lou’s handsomely appointed Washington, D.C., house, a year after her death; Sharon (Elizabeth Ledo), the youngest child who moved back home to help care for her mother, says she’s not ready to purge even impersonal effects like medical equipment from her mom’s final days.
Both Sharon and eldest daughter Holly (Gail Shapiro) still reside in D.C. Sharon’s a single kindergarten teacher with an apparent knack for falling for rotten guys. Holly is married to seemingly well-to-do lawyer Howard (Keith Kupferer) and, with one kid already off to college and the other, 16-year-old Joey (Alec Boyd), about to enter his junior year of high school, is casting about for something new to fill her days.
But Levenson opens on middle child Michael (Daniel Cantor), who now lives in New York and is still feeling some guilt — but maybe not that much — about not being present enough for his mother’s last days. Michael’s relationship to his Judaism is perhaps the most fraught — or at least it’s the most forefronted.
In the play’s opening scene, Michael is agitatedly listening to his wife, Ellen (Heather Townsend), talk to their daughter Abby on the cell phone they bought to keep in touch with her while Abby’s on her Birthright trip to Israel. The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at Camp David have just broken down, leaving Michael anxious about Abby’s safety in Jerusalem.
In fact, we soon learn, Michael was opposed to his daughter taking the trip in the first place. An avowed atheist but also a scholar of Jewish studies, he’s mystified by Abby’s wanting to connect with her religious heritage, and by what he sees as Ellen’s encouragement, given that she’s not Jewish herself.
Michael’s conflicted feelings about Israel are soon to become very public; in his forthcoming book, provocatively titled “Forgetting the Holocaust,” he argues that the memory of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis has become a cudgel, essentially blackmailing Jews into supporting Israel unequivocally. Contemporary Judaism, Michael avers, has become “a religion and a culture of, frankly, death and death worship.” (Michael and his book, as well as the subsequent legal battle with the university that denies him tenure in the second act of Levenson’s play, seem to be directly inspired by Norman Finkelstein, whose controversial work “The Holocaust Industry” was published in 2000 and who was denied tenure at DePaul University in 2007.)
Levenson, probably best known as the Tony-winning book writer of the musical “Dear Evan Hansen” — and more recently as the showrunner of the FX network’s terrific backstage-biography series “Fosse/Verdon” — demonstrates an unsurprising aptitude for complicating a narrative. His play’s first act is spun into motion not just by the Camp David talks but by the impending U.S. presidential contest between George W. Bush, Al Gore and Ralph Nader; his second act, set after Bush’s inauguration, carefully (and even humorously) bridges what we knew in February 2001 and everything that changed seven months later.
The second act deflates slightly as the family’s arguments about big issues give way to sniping about real estate and money. But director Devon de Mayo’s Victory Gardens production is both clear-eyed and complex, thanks in large part to an outstanding cast of actors who each put their full power behind conflicting — but not necessarily contradictory — points of view.
Nowhere is this plainer than in a pair of back-to-back monologues near the end of Levenson’s first act. Cantor’s Michael unleashes his full, righteous firehose of invective against those who would oppose any questioning of the Israeli government’s actions — earning a strong round of applause on opening night. And in the very next scene, Lou, who was among the American forces who liberated Dachau, gives his remembrance of the horrific scene he found there: “For you, history is an abstraction. But for us, the ones who survived this long, long century, there are no abstractions.”
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.