The problem with many, if not most, family dramas is that the families are so often hateful. Playwright Steven Levenson (book writer of “Dear Evan Hansen”) avoids that trap in “If I Forget,” writing about a tribe of middle-aged Jewish neurotics who snipe and squabble after the death of their mother — but who basically love one another. Heritage means a lot to this closely knit family, which is what keeps us engaged in their quarrels.
The Fischer family can be mean and petty, if not downright cruel, but they’re good people. When it becomes clear that their father, Lou (Larry Bryggman, always the pro), can no longer live alone in the family home, nobody runs for the hills. In fact, they all jump in with offers to help.
Levenson deliberately makes it hard to get a handle on the individual Fischers. Michael (the invaluable Jeremy Shamos, holding it all together), the middle child and only son, teaches Jewish Studies and has just published a controversial book, “Forgetting the Holocaust,” that may cost him both his academic reputation and his current job. If there’s a focal figure in this group study, it would be Michael.
Michael and his supportive wife, Ellen (Tasha Lawrence), have a cross to bear; namely, their daughter, Abby, who has mental “issues” necessitating hospitalization. (At the moment, she’s in Israel, facing the Wailing Wall and working on her next breakdown.)
His sister Holly, played with aplomb by the effortlessly likeable Kate Walsh (“Private Practice”), is the most authoritative person onstage, which comes from being an eldest child — and having a money-maker of a spouse in husband Howard (Gary Wilmes). Sharon, the youngest, is their father’s caretaker, which takes the core of inner strength shown by Maria Dizzia.
In the tradition of domestic drama, Levenson’s play involves a lot of talk and precious little action. But the talk is surprisingly gripping, especially when one secret after another is teased out of the siblings. Not to give things away, but when the main asset is the family business (currently a dollar store on 14th Street), there are bound to be differences in opinion about sharing the collective heritage. (Rent it? Sell it? Work it?)
There’s also the question of the family religion, which is integral to their lives even when they’re busy denouncing it. Michael, the rebel whose current cause is “Students for Nader,” abhors all forms of organized religion and accuses his observant siblings of regressing to the dark ages. But Michael’s insistence on modern Jews casting off “their obsession with the Holocaust” is enough to make him a pariah among his own people.
Like their religious convictions, the Fischers’ ancestral traditions are in danger of coming undone. Taken in this context, giving up the family store — the Fischers’ own “cherry orchard” — is akin to giving up the family faith.
“We all want to hold onto our history,” says Michael. “I would love to keep the store and pass it on to our children and grandchildren. But it’s not some kind of magical place. … This is our family, the family that is sitting here at this table. The people who came before us — they’re not here anymore.”
Except when someone who remembers them thinks to put them in a play.