Review: ‘If I Forget’ at Studio Theatre

When I grew up in a small New Jersey shore town with a single synagogue to serve many surrounding communities, I recall a particular question uttered within my family and my own Jewish tribe. This question popped into my head as I took in Studio Theatre’s fine, unflinching production about Jewish-American identity, If I Forget by Steven Levenson (Tony Award book writer for Dear Evan Hansen, and a Bethesda, MD native).

The question asked about Jewish-American identity may seem quaint rather than vexing today. Back then it was powerful. It was the lens through which so much was evaluated. Levenson’s If I Forget poses that question: “Is it good for the Jews?”

If I Forget has an achingly provoking political acumen. And yes, the play is also a family drama writ large. (Over time, those family aspects of the script became almost unbearably overstuffed).

Under Matt Torney’s meticulous direction and terrific casting, If I Forget is a production that hopefully will be taken in by any and all, Jewish or not; and of any generation. All Torney asks is that the audience accepts being enveloped, in well-executed frank verbal sparring with a special brand of sarcastic humor. The play deals with a myriad of hot-button issues. You name it–the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine peace efforts, deeply hidden family financial mysteries, struggles over how to respond to parents’ aging, stressing over a child’s health conditions and of course, the foibles of lonely people who seek out warmth and affection from unexpected sources. Yup, they can be checked off.

So, what is the synopsis for If I Forget? Here is the Studio marketing information:

“It’s July 2000—the Oslo Accords are falling apart, and in Tenleytown, a modern Jewish family [the Fischers] is fracturing over what to do with their 14th Street real estate. Their mother has died, their father will need full-time care, and as their adult children debate what do to next, no topic is off limits: American Jews and their relationship to Israel, who’s already given enough to this family, a sibling’s parenting choices.”

The Fischer family includes Michael (Jonathan Goldstein as a raging bull, later wounded and bloodied). He is a professor of Jewish Studies, writing a fire-starting book about the Holocaust causing a stir. Michael is a secular character, though also obsessed with questions of Jewish identity. Michael believes that over time Jewish life has been hollowed out in America. That the Holocaust has made contemporary Judaism “a religion and a culture of, frankly, death and death worship.”

Jonathan Goldstein and Susan Rome in If I Forget, now playing at Studio Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Jonathan Goldstein and Susan Rome in If I Forget, now playing at Studio Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

In a rage about Jewish identity, Michael is compelling when he laments what to him is the loss of a key Jewish–American identity, being radical like Emma Goldman or Albert Einstein, or how Jews were once key partners for civil rights. Michael notes that now “famous” Jews are Alan Dershowitz and Alan Greenspan. I could see him almost spit out the unspoken Yiddish word “feh” (meaning disgusting). What Levenson has Michael say next brought private shivers to me: “We’re white people now. We’re respectable. We’re nothing. Nothing at all.”

Michael’s 75-year-old dad Lou (Richard Fancy) does not appreciate his son’s outlook on the Holocaust. Lou is a WWII veteran who liberated concentration camps. From his own war experiences, Lou speaks forcefully and with emotion that silenced the Studio audience. What did he say? “For you [Michael], history is an abstraction. But for us, the ones who survived this century, this long, long century, there are no abstractions anymore.”

The Fischer family includes two sisters. Sharon (a downtrodden Robin Abramson) is a put-upon caretaker younger sister. She is a teacher of young children in Anacostia. She wants to “save” the family business as a connection to her Jewish roots. Another note about Sharon; she is unlucky with some of the Jewish men she has been with. They have treated her badly. Now she has a secret lover, one not of the faith. Older sister Holly is every bit Michael’s verbal and energy equal–at least as portrayed by a very animated, brilliant Susan Rome with meaty lines and moments full of cutting sarcasm. Holly wants to start a design business. Alas, she comes to learn those plans may be in doubt because of secretive actions by her husband (Paul Morella).

Another key character is Ellen, Michael’s gentile wife. Portrayed by Julie-Ann Elliott, she is a kind person with eyes and facial gestures that exude caring whether for Michael, or her unseen daughter who has a raft of medical issues.

Jonathan Goldstein, Julie-Ann Elliott, and Susan Rome in If I Forget, now playing at Studio Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Jonathan Goldstein, Julie-Ann Elliott, and Susan Rome in If I Forget, now playing at Studio Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Big kudos to costume designer Helen Huang. Huang makes each of the characters a real person. Here is just one example: the women’s footwear. When I first saw them, Holly was a force in red pumps with several inch heels. Ellen was a quiet presence in leather sandals, while Sharon wore nondescript sneakers. The two-level set design by Debra Booth provides plenty of useful detailed visuals to represent the Fischer family fortunes.

As for the title, If I Forget, well its source seems to be from Psalm 137:5–“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” From that Biblical line, Levenson penned his bracing tale.

If I Forget is a courageous production about Jewish-American dreamers trying to find a way to stay together as a functioning family with their world on a precipice. The family members may argue constantly, but they know when to cease bickering with a joke or a hug. Survival together as a family means that compromise is not a dirty word.

Finally, I was struck by this line posed by the character Michael: “We all want to hold onto our history.” How that is to be accomplished is the crux of If I Forget. Even as the script needs pruning to reduce the scope of issues it tackles, the production is something to behold, then debate. I would pay just to see such a heated post-show discussion. Oh, the chutzpah (brazen nerve) it would require to invite folk from various sides to speak their minds about Levenson’s script and the issues he raises.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.

If I Forget plays through October 21, 2018, at Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

Read John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column about If I Forget.