By turns funny and heartbreaking, If I Forget is the rare play that manages to make several theatrical chestnuts feel urgent and compelling. In an upper-middle-class Washington, D.C., neighborhood in the summer of 2000, a Jewish family realizes that the personal is political as the pressures of what to do with an ailing father coincide with the failure of the Camp David Summit and the looming Second Intifada. The presence of candy bar phones and impassioned discussions about political idealism vs. pragmatism regarding Ralph Nader’s electoral viability may tempt us to indulge in fond reminiscence, but playwright Steven Levenson wants us to remember that what’s past is prologue.
I saw an early preview of Redbud Productions’ take on the show, perched on a folding chair in director Loretta Grimes’ basement. As the family gathers to discuss what to do about their father, the siblings tangle and reconcile and forge competing alliances, airing past hurts and current pain. Only son Michael (Dave Barker), a Jewish studies professor, is struggling both professionally (he’s untenured) and personally (his mentally ill college-age daughter is touring Jerusalem). Oldest daughter and would-be interior designer Holly (Susan Todoroff) is married to a successful lawyer but has a strained relationship with her teenage son (Chris Krenz). Youngest daughter Sharon (Melissa Stewart) is an elementary school teacher who hates the role she’s been forced to play in the family: a Cordelia to their aging and infirm father, Lou (Tim Grimes).
The play’s central concern is what it means to be a Jew in the twenty-first century. Each character deals with it differently: Holly goes to temple only on the High Holy Days, Sharon attends every Sabbath, and Michael, an atheist, is publishing a book titled Forgetting the Holocaust, in which he acerbically proclaims Judaism to have become “a religion and a culture of, frankly, death and death worship.” But for Lou, who liberated the Dachau concentration camp at the end of WWII, history is not an abstraction.
The script is challenging, but the setup is effective, thanks to the actors’ emotional intelligence and relatability. I was moved to tears by Lou’s monologue about Dachau, an important counterpoint to the play’s intellectualism. A few subplots are hard to believe and distracting, and there’s an abrupt shift in tone at the end. But it’s a powerful show, done justice by its talented cast and shrewd director.
If I Forget is at Kerrytown Concert House May 31 and June 1 and 2.