Steven Levenson’s “If I Forget” began its Off-Broadway run a year ago, closing just six weeks before the now 33-year-old playwright won the Tony Award for writing the book of the acclaimed musical “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Cut to February 2018, and South Florida already has its own exquisite production of “If I Forget,” thanks to GableStage artistic director Joseph Adler.
Levenson’s funny, harrowing, provocative family play may be dense with ideas — and it is — but watching it, observing the philosophical and practical collisions among three grown siblings, is every bit as satisfying as taking in a particularly masterful episode of “This Is Us.”
Set in the Fischer family home in an upper middle class neighborhood of Washington, D.C., “If I Forget” begins in July 2000 as the Fischer siblings gather to celebrate the 75th birthday of their widowed dad, Lou (George Schiavone).
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Elder sister Holly (Patti Gardner), her wealthy second husband, Howard Killberg (David Kwiat), and Holly’s snarky teen son Joey (Matthew Ferro) don’t live far away.
Michael Fischer (Gregg Weiner), a Jewish studies professor about to grab the golden ring of tenure, and his non-Jewish wife, Ellen (Ame Livingston), have traveled down from New York and their recently purchased home in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. Their troubled teen daughter Abby, who would otherwise have come to the celebration, is on a Birthright Israel tour, much to Michael’s consternation since the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is failing.
Younger sister Sharon (Margery Lowe), a single kindergarten teacher, is the daughter who’s always there, looking out for Lou, checking in at the store the Fischers have rented to a Latino family, being responsible and making sacrifices, as she’s forever reminding Holly and Michael when she tries to send them on yet another guilt trip.
Politics, modern Judaism, Jerusalem syndrome, racism, anorexia, morality, Israel, the Holocaust and caring for an elderly parent are just the tip of the topical iceberg in “If I Forget.” And no matter what your family background, the way the Fischers can rage at each other one minute and demonstrate their enduring emotional connections the next rings very, very true.
Adler’s cast, a mixture of familiar faces and a couple of newcomers to GableStage, adroitly navigates Levenson’s text to become persuasive as a family facing a critical decision.
Gardner, as the financially comfortable wife and interior designer wannabe, makes it abundantly clear that Holly is the firstborn — and therefore, in her view, the alpha — Fischer sibling. Kwiat’s Howard seems quiet and relatively detached until it’s time for a confessional bombshell. Ferro’s wisecracking Joey mostly concentrates on his adult-blocking video game, but it turns out that he too is concerned with what will pass from his parents’ generation to his.
Weiner, appearing in his 16th Adler-directed production, is the play’s dramatic linchpin as Michael. He is utterly believable as a man of great intellectual depth who nonetheless totally misjudges the effect his controversial new book will have on his future. As Ellen, Livingston conveys a caring warmth and the frustrations of an in-law still treated as an outsider when it’s time for nitty-gritty family decisions.
Lowe’s Sharon, her siblings’ manipulative equal, is a lonely woman whose forays into romance have so far not paid off. But she’s determined to change that, no matter the cost, and she also blithely ignores Ellen’s irritation at Sharon’s self-anointed role as sounding board for the ailing Abby.
As Lou, Schiavone provides a vital historical perspective in the first act — a kind of reality-based pushback to Michael’s views on the role of the Holocaust in modern Jewish life — and then silently but movingly sets off a family crisis.
GableStage’s fine creative team — set designer Lyle Baskin, lighting designer Jeff Quinn, costume designer Ellis Tillman, sound designer Matt Corey and prop master Beth Fath — deliver once again. Though the play is set in 2000 and 2001, the Fischers’ two-story family home looks lived-in and dated, probably little changed from the time Holly, Michael and Sharon were growing up there. Conflicts claim the spotlight, but memories lurk in shadow.
“If I Forget” deliberately provokes thought, debate, even outrage. But for those who seek out plays that engage the mind as well as emotions, GableStage’s powerful production of Levenson’s rich script is must-see theater.
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If you go
▪ What: ‘If I Forget’ by Steven Levenson.
▪ Where: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.
▪ When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Feb. 24 and March 3; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through March 4.
▪ Cost: $42-$60 (students $15 Thursday and Sunday evenings).
▪ Information: 305-445-1119 or www.gablestage.org.