Human beings would like to believe that they are ultimately solely responsible for how their lives turn out. Their education, friends, religion and family background are secondary factors. But as Steven Levenson’s “If I Forget” shows, no one really has control over their lives.
“If I Forget” opens Studio Theatre’s 40th year with appropriate intensity- an emotionally honest and searing look at a family that’s on the cusp of a series of dramatic changes.
Set in Washington D.C. in the early 2000s but several months before the September 11th attacks, all the scenes happen in the home of patriarch of the Fischer family. Directed by Matt Torney, the play will be running through October 21, 2018.
Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business show on CGTN America. His analysis represents his views alone.
The Fischers are a modern Jewish family, raised as secular humanists without being tethered to Judaic tradition. The play begins with them all returning home to celebrate Grandpa Fischer’s 75th birthday but the atmosphere is tense and everyone is on edge. The siblings are squabbling over how they’re going to take care of their father now that’s he’s getting older. Their mother passed a few years before.
There’s also the question of the prime real estate the family owns on 14th Street in Washington D.C., which could be worth millions. The siblings all have their own plans for the space and they’re not revealing their schemes to each other.
“If I Forget” could have been your run-of-the-mill family drama if it were not for the playwright’s decision to weave in some historical context into the script.
As the Fischers’ family tensions play out, the Gore/Bush/Nader election of 2000 is slowly turning into a train wreck. Moreover, the Camp David Middle East peace talks are falling apart and raising tensions between the Palestinians and the Israeli government. It doesn’t help that one of the Fischer grandkids is in Israel on a school trip.
Having these events punctuate certain points of the play via file footage of President George W. Bush’s press conferences and coverage of the 2000 U.S. election heightens the urgency of each scene.
The family is also divided over the politicization of the Jewish faith, with one side becoming more conservative over Israel’s future political direction and the other increasingly uncomfortable with expansion of the Jewish state.
The play’s center of gravity is Michael Fischer (played wonderfully and forcefully by Jonathan Goldstein), the most academically accomplished member of the family and is up for tenure at his university. But getting that plum post is increasingly uncertain because of his contrarian views on the Holocaust. Unfortunately his views are also wearing thin on his family because Michael’s latest book happens to be titled “Forgetting the Holocaust”.
Despite the familial and historical chaos the Fischers are immersed in, Michael and his siblings feel they’re ultimately still in control of their fates. Michael thinks he’s going to get tenure at his university, while his sisters believe their plans for the future of the store will work out.
By the beginning of the second act, the Fischer family is in full collapse. Grandpa Fisher is incapacitated by a stroke, while the lives of his children slowly implode.
Michael has been fired by his University, while Holly and Sharon are bitterly fighting for control of the store. But even with their world falling apart around them, the Fischers believe they’re still in control of their lives, which sets up the heartbreaking conclusion of the play.
As Michael and his siblings try to find a way to preserve their way of life, they flail helplessly, going from one far-fetched scheme to another.
As “If I Forget” wraps up, the Fischers are reminded that whatever control they believed they had over their fates was illusory.
Still, Levenson doesn’t ease up on the audience. He piles on the vitriol between the family members- with each Fischer taking turns lashing out.
The family’s growing desperation is so skillfully rendered by the excellent cast that I felt a little claustrophobic and suffocated. But before the final curtain fell, “If I Forget” gives the audience a bittersweet consolation, with the Fischers choosing to sacrifice the very thing that kept the family together in order to save themselves.