The Fountain Theater presents If I Forget, a play by Steven Levenson (author of Dear Evan Hansen) and directed by Jason Alexander of Steinfeld fame. As I was seeing the play only a day before Tisha B’Av (when Jews mourn the loss of the temples and other major disasters in Jewish history) I thought it an appropriate event.
I had looked forward to the performance because of the title poem which starts “If I forget thee O’Jerusalem…”. It seduced me into thinking that the play had more to do with Israel, but actually, the story is about how we, as Jews, relate both to Israel and our past with the Holocaust. The playwright had wanted to write something that expressed the general disillusionment that set in after the failed Middle East talks in 2000 and so set the story then when many American Jews questioned their identity and debated issues of intermarriage and secularism vs religion.
The play encompasses some of this as well as a universal family drama. Starring Leo Marks (Michael Fischer) as a disillusioned Jew who served as a professor of Jewish studies at a local university and hoping for tenure, his non-Jewish wife Site Bermingham (Ellen), their daughter Caribay Franke (Abby) who was in Israel for the Birthright tour (a program for Jewish youth 18 to 26 to visit Israel) and danced her way through the play, Michael’s sisters Valerie Perri (Holly) and Samantha Klein (Sharon) as well as Jerry Weil (Holly’s husband Howard), their son Jacob Zelonky (Joey) as well as the recently widowed patriarch Mat Gottlieb (Lou Fischer.)
The acting was great, and I enjoyed the interpretive dancing by Caribay Franke, especially at the beginning when part of the poem was recited.
The play had 3 major themes – the first centered around Israel. Their daughter was on a Birthright trip to Israel. Michael, an overprotective father, ranted on about the dangers he was sure she faced in Israel. He contrasted with Ellen, the Swedish non-Jew who seems more into Judaism than her agnostic husband. Michael, having just finished a book telling Jews to forget the Holocaust. Putting the victims in not so brilliant a light, he told his readers to stop using the death of the 6 million as an excuse for Israel -which actually was in the process of developing many years before the end of World War II and not just a product of trauma the Jewish nation suffered.
Because of the negative feedback Michael received from many including his sister and his father, Lou, who had actually been one of the Americans to liberate Dachau, it upset him. What Lou reported as his experience to his disbelieving son was something that no one in their right mind would ever want to forget. All this made Michael more defensive as his wife encouraged their daughter to discover her roots.
The second theme dealt with universal family issues, inheritance and discussing who which of the siblings would help the elderly father. Here we dug into the personal lives of the siblings – how they related as kids and more importantly how they related to each other today. Holly and Howard, it seemed, cared mainly for money and Holly was determined to use the family store that was now being rented by a Guatemalan family for her own interior design business. She has no idea that her husband Howard’s been caught in a scheme that many married men fall into. Meanwhile, Sharon’s in love with the Guatemalan head of the family who ran the store.
Because of his book, Michael’s lost his university post, is now in a court battle to get it back, and faces bankruptcy especially now that Abby has returned from Israel needing specialized care for her illness.
Each of the siblings believes what they want and what they need is what should happen.
The third theme was how we treat the mentally ill. Abby, with her mother’s encouragement, had expressed her relationship to Judaism despite the fact of that her dad’s agnostic feelings. It’s hinted that she has emotional problems and that while in Israel developed Jerusalem syndrome. She comes home believing she can talk to God. She doesn’t speak in the play but instead dances out her emotions. Her cousin, Joey, on the other hand, who’s on the slow spectrum, shows another side of mental illness and how he relates to his cousin
The end of the play had a conclusion of sorts for the siblings as far as their inheritance and dealing with their ill father, but it left many open questions for the audience to chew on.
The thought-provoking play had many things for the audience to discuss afterwards and conversations, which I’m sure continued for several hours after. There were also others in attendance who seemed upset at the sentiments expressed.
I know the play left me thinking about several issues and while we should not, cannot, forget the Holocaust, because who knows when something like this could happen again, I know that there are many who believe the trauma plays too much in our consciousness.
If I Forget is a play that will stir many things in people.
Parking for the theatre in the secure lot is $5, though there is street parking if you want to try it. Masks and proof of vaccine must be shown at the door. The play runs through September 10th with shows Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Mondays also has a Pay-What-You-Want (subject to availability.) Ticket prices run from $25 to $45 with discounts for seniors and students. You can call 323 663 1525 for reservations or go to their site.