These days, we cling to our memories, worried that without them we will drift into dementia. But in his latest controversial book, fictional professor of Jewish studies Michael Fischer argues that American Jews need to forget – forget the Holocaust and stop obsessing over it for the sake of their mental health and general well-being.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, he receives a great deal of personal and professional backlash for his provocative position, even before the book is published. Michael’s troubles are just the tip of the iceberg for the Fischers, a secular, upper-middle-class Jewish clan from Washington, D.C., in the early years of this century. Like many a liberal Jew, they wring their hands over the president – George W. Bush – and the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, without realizing that far worse is ahead.
The same goes for their own situations, a loosely knit trio of siblings grieving over their mother’s death from cancer and now grappling with what to do with their father, an infirm stroke victim who needs continuous care. More than half a century earlier, patriarch Lou Fischer had helped to liberate the Dachau concentration camp, whose images haunt him to this day.
No wonder he is deeply offended by his son’s book, Forgetting the Holocaust, which will lose Michael first his tenure, then his job. His sisters are similarly stressed, with issues concerning money, real estate and family responsibility, as well as what it means to be Jewish in America these days.
So it goes in Steven Levenson’s If I Forget, an extremely mature and complex work for a young playwright in his early 30s, best known for his Tony Award-winning script for the musical Dear Evan Hansen. If I Forget will surely receive numerous productions around the nation but, as he has done so often, Joseph Adler quickly snagged the performance rights to this thought-provoking play, cast it expertly and staged it with all of its dramatic conflict and no little dark humor very much intact.
The three grown Fischer siblings – elder sister Holly (Patti Gardner), Michael (Gregg Weiner) and single, younger sister Sharon (Margery Lowe), to whom most of the parental care responsibilities have fallen – have reunited to deal with their father’s declining health. That quandary takes a back seat for self-involved Michael, whose inflammatory book has a growing number of this university colleagues petitioning for him to be fired. He and his Gentile wife Ellen (Ame Livingston) will also soon he stressed, emotionally and financially, by their daughter, who had an emotional breakdown on a Birthright visit to the Holy Land.
The stresses keep piling up, including Sharon catching her new boyfriend having sex with their cantor. And Holly’s lawyer husband Howard (David Kwiat) meeting a woman on the internet and racking up huge debts after he gave her his credit card information. Welcome to the new century.
Maybe Howard’s transgression stretches credulity a bit, but the rest of the characters are all highly believable, flawed folks. And they are extremely well-played at GableStage, beginning with Weiner’s Michael, a deep thinker destined to be misunderstood and resented. Lowe’s Sharon is blindsided by her caring nature and yearning for romance and George Schiavone’s Lou doesn’t say much, but when he does in a monologue recalling Dachau, he is very articulate about his horrific memories.
On a tastefully appointed two-tiered set by Lyle Baskin, director Adler renders the play with his usual unflinching impact. If I Forget is a play and a production that you will long remember.
IF I FORGET, GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Through Sunday, March 4. $42-$60. 305-445-1119 or visit www.gablestage.org.