Playwright Steven Levenson was quoted as saying he wranted to write a play about the ways in which the Holocaust continues to linger and resonate in American Jewish life today, but with "If I Forget," now at GableStage, the Holocaust is only a part of what the family at the center of the play has to grapple with.
Liberal studies professor Michael Fischer (Gregg Weiner) has reunited with his two sisters to celebrate their father's 75th birthday, not long after their mother's death. Each of the adult children are a bit narcissistic Michael, a professor about to get tenure at a New York university, has taken his controversial scholarly work on how stories of the Holocaust have become a crutch for modern day Jews (it's a bit more complicated than that as Michael lectures his family throughout the play like a university professor might) and turned it into a soon to be published book, "Forgetting the Holocaust," sits very poorly with his father, Lou (George Schiavone), a veteran who was in Dachau for the liberation; sister Holly (Patti Gardner) is dealing with a combative teenage son, Joey (Matthew Ferro), and a workaholic, vapid husband, Howard (David Kwiat). Sister Sharon (Margery Lowe), a kindergarten teacher, lives closest to the family homestead, an old white colonial on a quiet residential street in Tenleytown, a white upper-middle class neighborhood in Washington, D.C. She makes no bones about the fact that she feels put upon by the rest of the family to be the caretaker of dear old Dad, and her recently deceased cancer-stricken mother, although this is apparent it is self inflicted. Ellen (Ame Livingston) is Michael's Gentile wife she and Michael have a daughter, plagued by an eating disorder, and somewhat coddled by Ellen. We never meet daughter, Abby, although she is referred to and is a crucial character in many ways. When the play opens, Michael is full of angst over Abby's adventure in Israel with Birthright. So many in the audience must have experienced their own kids going on he Jewish heritage trips that there were a few chuckles at the mention. Michael's reactions are many to her Wailing Wall visit, courtesy of the fine comedic writing of Levenson: "An internship is a summer at an ice cream shop, not 10 days in a war zone."
Levenson, who won a Tony Award for writing the book for the Broadway musical "Dear Evan Hansen," has written dialogue that makes the overly talky "If I Forget," comedic and relateable, yet with serious undertones. As director Joe Adler said during his curtain speech, and which we couldn't agree more, Levenson is going to be "our next Arthur Miller."
There are long passages, much like Miller's writing, where Michael expounds on his theories, are broken down with precision by Weiner and director Adler. Although preachy, they remain interesting. When Howard (Kwiat) divulges indiscretions to Michael, the onion is peeled back revealing layers upon layers of middle-aged crisis. Levenson's comedy is sharp. When Michael talks about the modern day Jew, Levenson's writing is quick. "They watch Seinfeld in Topeka," says Michael. "Everyone eats bagels." "We're represented by Alan Dershowitz and Joe Lieberman." "Everyone's reading books on Kaballah and Kosher sex."
As previously noted, this isn't a Jewish play per se, but a kitchen-sink drama (in this case, a dining room drama as much of the action that takes place in the three room set -- beautifully created by Lyle Baskin -- takes place around the table). Levenson's play subjects are usually in the midst of strained family, most especially parents and children's relationships. Here, he hits on all cylinders married couples, and how they relate to their own children, how adult siblings' relationships change over time, and how adult children become caretakers to their aging parents.
Adler has assembled an ensemble of the some of the best actors in South Florida, and the standout moments are many. There are fireworks on stage, sparked by each actors' ability to take Levenson's words and make them their own. Then there's Adler's honest direction lovely touches such as having Gardner as Holly set the dining table with care, while there's conversation going on the second level bedroom; it doesn't distract, but further serves the realism.
Despite each of these character's flaws, and each has a multitude, you sympathize with the Fischers perhaps because you may see yourself somewhere in each of them. Weiner has the most difficult role, mostly because the arrogant character could, played differently, be unlikeable, but the depth he brings to Michael makes you see through to a true vulnerability.
Gardner's unflinching portrayal of Holly, is razor sharp. She's biting, bickering, and, overwhelming. Gardner rises to every occasion. As Holly's world crumbles and she licks her wounds with wine, Xanax, Klonepin, and anything else that will numb her pain, Gardner captures Holly's broken spirit.
So wonderfully different is Lowe's portrayal of younger sister Sharon, a neurotic wounded lamb whose long-held resentments consistently bubble up to the surface. When Lowe's Sharon loses it, shouting and telling her brother Michael exactly how she feels about him, you can sense their deeply complicated history.
Then there's Kwiat's meek Howard, Holly's cuckolded husband, whose awkwardness to fit in with the family, is sure to elicit sympathy despite the character's bad choices. Livingston's Ellen is much in the same boat on the outside looking in, and the actress gives her sensitive Ellen a true heart that comes through. Schiavone's patriarch, Lou. is quietly effective, especially when he recounts the story of what he saw in the horrors of Holocaust death camps. And recent graduate of New World School of the Arts Ferro as the brooding teenage son of Howard and Holly holds his own against this veteran ensemble.
Matt Corey's sound design -- such as TV news chiming in every once in a while about Israeli-American relations and Ellis Tillman's realistic costumes add context, while Jeff Quinn's lighting design is warm and homey.
There are reasons aplenty to see GableStage's family dramedy, but most among them is what precision Adler and his wonderful actors bring to making "If I Forget" a play to remember.
"If I Forget" runs through March 4 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, inside the Biltmore Hotel. Performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. Two matinees have been added due to popular demand on Feb. 24 and March 3. Tickets are $42-$60. Students $15. For tickets and information, call 305-445-1119 or visit GableStage.org