BWW Review: IF I FORGET at Barrington Stage Company A Rare and Powerful Mix of Reality and Raw Emotion.
The title may have you thinking along the lines of aging, dementia, alzheimer's. A prominent theme / subject being explored on many stages of late, but this is not the case. Here it is a biblical reference to the Book of Psalms chapter 137 verse 5 which begins: "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 ..."
IF I FORGET is the powerful tale of a Jewish-American family and a culture at odds with itself. Three siblings reunite to celebrate their father's 75th birthday. As long-held secrets bubble to the surface, they negotiate - with biting humor and razor-sharp insight - how much of the past they're willing to sacrifice for a chance at a new beginning.
The story takes place over 2000 and 2001 in the Fischer family home in Tenleytown, Washington D.C. The family has gathered to celebrate the Patriarch of the family, Lou's (Robert Zuckerman) 75th birthday. His wife has passed away. Assembled for the festivities are eldest daughter, Holly (Laura Jordan), her second husband, Howard Kilberg (Mitch Greenberg) and her son, Joey (Isaac Josephthal) as well as Holly's younger sister, Sharon (Lena Kaminsky) all of whom live nearby and visit their father with regularity. Visiting from New York City are Lou's son, Michael (J. Anthony Crane) and his non-Jewish wife, Ellen (Kathleen Wise).
We learn that although Michael and Ellen's daughter, Abby, is in Jerusalem about to visit the Western / Wailing Wall (considered to be one of the most holy of places on earth to the Jewish people). Michael, a professor of Jewish Studies, does not believe in God. Holly follows traditions, can kibbutz with the best of them, but does not seem passionately committed to anything really. Sharon espouses a deep commitment to her heritage and culture though we are never really sure why. Particularly in the face of certain events she has faced that would test the faith of most. Each of the siblings remembers growing up in the house, and yet their memories are unique to themselves. They each see their families shared history in a different light filtered by their own personal perspective.
As is so often the case, while all appears well on the surface, it is not. The Fischers are, in my experience, typically far from a "model family". Skeletons from each of the sibling's closets are revealed. Michael has written a book that may cost him his livelihood. The book deals with the Holocaust and how many Jews hold it dear, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. This is the cause for even more discussion and argument that results in a conversation between father and son about Lou's personal experience as a member of the US armed forces that liberated the Dachau concentration camp. The scene is incredibly powerful and moving.
To the entire cast's credit, the raw emotions and passion throughout IF I FORGET are palpable. They really get into it. They know how to manipulate and push each other's buttons in the way that only family can. And we haven't even gotten into the second act.
There are a few slower moving moments in Tony Award winning (Book of Dear Evan Hansen) playwright Steven Levonson's work but there is plenty of pathos as well as lots of levity and laughter in IF I FORGET. The ensemble cast is very strong and extremely well balanced. So much so that at some point I stopped seeing individual performers engaged in their craft as actors and became totally engrossed in watching a family. While this may be somewhat attributable to my own personal connection to the subject matter as a member of the diaspora and secular Jewish community in suburban America, I think the Fischer family and its many dynamics will feel familiar to most. In other words, you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate this powerful and moving play, but it won't hurt. Many audience members will likely see their own family members on the stage. IF I FORGET explores, deeply, a family and its history. It looks at the past, the present, and how the future might affect them, as well as the legacy they should / will leave.
Directed by Jennifer Chambers with scenic design by John McDermott, costume design by Elivia Bovenzi, lighting design by Scott Pinkney, sound design by Palmer Hefferan, and stage management by Leslie Sears IF I FORGET continues through September 8th on Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Visit https://barringtonstageco.org/ for tickets and information.