When it comes to making peace, warring peoples and sparring families are unnervingly alike. At best, their negotiations call for an outsize presence of mind and enlightened self-sacrifice. At worst, they are an exercise in futility. And, when both country and clan concern contemporary Jewish American culture, the circumstances are loaded.
Case in point: At PURE Theatre, Steven Levenson's absorbing If I Forget follows the somewhat fanged and frequently funny infighting of a particularly fractious tribe, the Fischer family, who regularly engage in land grabs, unholy alliances, and even accusations of Holocaust denial. PURE's season opener, it is the Southeast regional premiere of a work that debuted earlier this year at New York City's Roundabout Theatre. Directed by Sharon Graci, the production gets the company's 15th anniversary season off and roaring, with an emotionally-charged look at cultural identity brought to life by a cohesive, compelling ensemble.
To do so, the play gathers the members of the Fischer brood in their Washington, D.C. family home. It's not long before individual agendas assert themselves — and skirmishes ensue. There's brother Michael (Laurens Wilson), the thus-maligned "self-loathing" Jewish Studies professor at a New York City university who is a hair's breadth away from the academic Holy Land that is tenure. The familial fault line of the play, Michael is bent on speaking his unpalatable truths — and Wilson skillfully maneuvers between the character's measured reasoning and serious missteps.
But, even with his bona fides, Michael has no fear of sitting pretty on his high horse. His sister Holly, who is played with suitable strop and self-interest by Erin Wilson, is happy to cut him to size while she's also dishing out her gentrified version of their mother's green bean casserole. She's that sibling — you know, the one who shows up when the mood strikes her and immediately starts criticizing those others who have been doing the heavy lifting.
Then there's the younger sister Sharon, the bleeding heart with an unmade bed — in more ways than she'd care for you to know. Sharon has her own skin in the game regarding the Fischer family store, and I mean skin. Haberman's is now rented to a Guatemalan family, and Sharon is keen to keep it that way. Embued with heart and humor-inflected sparkle by Beth Curley, Sharon leavens while her siblings lope about. In doing so, Curley succeeds at mining much of the comedy lurking about the script (as does R.W. Smith, as Holly's hapless husband, who offers some rich comic relief in a cashmere turtleneck).
At the center of the Fischers is Lou (Randy Neale), the widower patriarch of few words who is matter-of-fact — well, until he isn't. Neale's Lou is a gripping study in suppression, remaining more or less mute by preference, only to then be rendered physically voiceless. I won't go into detail, and will only point out the accomplishment of the actor in doing so to great effect.
In this work, remembering history — whether at the hands of Dachau guards or the invisible hand of the market — may just be the only action that gives life meaning. It's what drives Michael to publish an incendiary book belittling the cultural weight of the Holocaust — and, at times, curiously, it's what can mire the play. At an hour and a half, the first act of If I Forget is frontloaded with considerable context. Set in 2000, the play covers a lot of territory regarding Clinton's failed Camp David brokerage of the Barak-Arafat Peace talks; the morphing demographics of D.C. real estate; and detailed accounts of family history. Michael's critique on the stultifying aspect of history thus plays out in the writing's very construct.
But just wait. The second act shifts sharply — brilliantly, really — when all comes home to roost for the Fischers, their spouses, and kids. As motives and mistakes emerge and converge, the stakes intensify and crackle. For me, this was a riveting, praiseworthy turn of events. With all the circling around and contextualizing, If I Forget came to a sudden, smarting point, as only a family drama can, to then land on something truly transcendent.
Richard Heffner's sandblast of a set quite literally entrenches the Fischers in that treacherous strip of Israeli desert that so shapes the world of this family. Comprised of three levels representing the family home, it is covered with countless grains of the stuff. Similarly, costume designer Janine McCabe outfits all in a wash of tan, cannily styling each according to character — beige silk blouses denoting suburban chic for Holly, Timberlands for her son Joey.
The night I saw the show, some audience members were overheard expressing how If I Forget resonated. As part of Charleston's Jewish community, they, like the Fischers, watch the shuttering of time-honored shops in a changing Charleston. If you look up on King Street facades, you still see some proud Jewish names persisting on an edifice that has now changed hands. Like this powerful, deeply considered work, those remaining names serve to refresh our understanding of who we are and how we are here, and why remembering matters. Lest we forget.