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Theater Review: If I Forget

Jacob Zelonky, Valerie Perri, Síle Bermingham and Jerry Weil in If I Forget. Photo by Jenny Graham.

 

Steven Levenson wrote his remarkable play If I Forget in 2017, and set it 17 years earlier. Events of the turn of the last century beautifully inform the story: The much-heralded Middle East negotiations, the Oslo Peace Accords, had just failed; 9/11 loomed. At the Fountain TheatreIf I Forget joins a recent pantheon of meaningful commentaries that are first and foremost entertaining theater experiences, including Roe, Detained and The Children.

In Northwest Washington, DC, the Fischer family is fully engaged in American and Jewish life. They gather to honor patriarch Lou (Matt Gottleib), a World War II veteran, on his 75th birthday. Lou’s wife has recently died and his three children bring their disparate perspectives to bear on his current increasingly infirm status.

Tenure-seeking Jewish Studies professor/author Michael Fischer (Leo Marks) lives in New York with his wife Ellen (Sile Berminham). Their teen daughter Abby (Caribay Franke) is in Israel on a birthright trip, but her presence haunts the family as she dances through dressed in white. Michael’s sister Holly (Valerie Perri) and her husband Howard Kilberg (Jerry Weil) are also New Yorkers and have a teen son, Joey (Jacob Zelonky), with a deliciously bad attitude. The only unmarried Fischer sibling is kindergarten teacher Sharon (Sami Klein), who lives near, and sometimes with, their father.

 

Leo Marks and Samantha Klein in If I Forget. Photo by Jenny Graham.

 

The characters feel like people whose contact info you have in your phone. The symbiosis of a richly real script and uniformly excellent acting combine in a riveting theater-going experience. The familiar is upended by the unexpected. Familial ties inevitably yet uniquely fray.

Squabbles relate to the rent charged at jointly owned family property and differing perspectives on the role the Holocaust should play in Jewish identity 55 years after the end of World War II. Holly and Howard, who have more financial resources than the other Fischers, are pressured to contribute more to covering Lou’s expenses. All feel they are the most put upon.

 

Jerry Weil, Jacob Zelonky and Matt Gottlieb in If I Forget. Photo by Jenny Graham.

 

The title references Psalm 137, in which diasporan Jews cling to the memory of their homeland. The Fischers are Reform yet all, including non-Jew Ellen, respect the family’s Jewish identity and hold strong opinions about Jerusalem and the Holocaust.

Director Jason Alexander sensitively guides the action. Characters not in a particular scene sit on the sidelines, reinforcing the idea that you’re never really free of your family. Abby’s dancing becomes more tragically manic and isolated. Each cast member is given a chance to shine, and each rises to the occasion. The family dynamics rival the Middle East in their complexity and deeply held emotions. Except that the family members get off some hysterically funny lines.

This thought-provoking and entertaining play sparks conversations with strangers and a deeper understanding of one’s own family. Even the tough questions are satisfying to ponder when presented by a talented cast and director not afraid to dig deep.

 

If I Forget runs  through September 10, with performances Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Dark Saturday, August 13; Sunday, August 14; and Monday, Sept. 5). Running time is about two hours and 45 minutes. Tickets are $25–45, with pay-what-you-want seating on Mondays. The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie) offers stacked parking for $5.

 

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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