PITTSFIELD — It's crunch time for the Fischer clan — collectively the beating heart and soul of Steven Levenson's compelling, if thematically overloaded, play, "If I Forget," which is being given a thoughtful, warm and deeply human production at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage.
"If I Forget" is set in the summer of 2000 and winter of 2001 in a house in the historic upscale Tenleytown neighborhood in Northwest Washington, D.C. It is the home of the Jewish family's 75-year-old patriarch, Lou (Robert Zukerman), his 48-year-old daughter, Holly (Laura Jordan); her husband, Howard (Mitch Greenberg); and Holly's 16-year-old son and Howard's stepson, Joey (Isaac Josephthal). Their daughter/stepdaughter Jennifer is attending Tisch School of the Arts in New York.
The occasion, as the play begins, is Lou's 75th birthday. His 45-year-old son, Michael (J. Anthony Crane), a Jewish studies professor, and his wife, Ellen (Kathleen Wise), a children's advocate, have made the trip down from New York, where they have just purchased a home in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Ellen's failure to convert to Judaism has made her something of an outlier in the family.
"I offered to convert but Michael said no," she explains to Holly, defensively.
"Why would you convert to a religion for a spouse who doesn't believe in it?" Crane's Michael interjects with a degree of impatience; an impatience that extends outward to what he deplores as the hypocritical nature of American Jewry at the turn of a new century.
Also showing up is the youngest of the Fischer siblings, 39-year-old Sharon (Lena Kaminsky), a kindergarten teacher and a political idealist.
There is unfinished business among them, much of it stemming from events surrounding their late mother's long-term illness and who did or did not rise to the demands of being there. Beyond that, Michael and Ellen's 19-year-old daughter, Abby, who is on a group trip to Israel, is facing a severe emotional and physical crisis that will tax Ellen, who is hopeful, and Michael, who issues dire storm warnings about Abby's condition and future.
Lou has retired and now rents what was once the family business — a once-thriving clothing store in a black neighborhood in DC — to a Central American family for essentially a pittance. Holly has her own designs on the place — an office for her nascent interior design business. Sharon advocates for the tenants. For his part, Michael is up for tenure and awaiting publication of his new book, his third, which, he says, is far less academic, less "specialized" than his previous two.
Michael, who is determined to keep his book's radical thesis about Jews and their relationship to the Holocaust secret until it is published, has sent a copy of the manuscript to his father — a son of immigrant Russian Jews; a World War II veteran who was part of the unit that liberated Dachau (described by Zukerman's Lou with intense control and feeling). But, to this point, there has been only silence from Lou.
The fabric connecting the family members, especially the siblings, is delicately woven — rough, scratchy, uncomfortable in places; at others, soft and yielding; tightly bound — a scene, for example, in what was their mother's bedroom during her illness, between Michael and Sharon and then all three as the siblings go through some of their mother's things.
All of it, however, will unravel with a force that gathers uncontrolled momentum. Two indiscretions; a pounding, financially draining lawsuit and the professional consequences when the thesis of Michael's book is leaked before publication, undermine the economic foundations of the family and turn expectations, hopes, dreams, legacy into so much detritus. The only solution, Michael suggests, is to sell the family store for a hefty seven figures but at a cost — a cost, Michael insists, that is worth paying.
" ... we all want to save history, hold onto our history," he argues during a fateful meeting with Holly and Sharon. "... would love to keep the store and pass it on to our children and our grandchildren ... but at what cost? It's a store. It's a parcel of property. It's not some kind of magical place. ... It's just dirt. .. This is our family. The family that is sitting here at this table. The people who came before us, they're not here anymore. There's just us. And Dad is part of this family. We owe him this. We owe him."
Levenson has packed a good deal into "If I Forget" — politics; social issues; moral issues; religious issues; grand philosophical considerations.
The play buckles under all that weight, especially in the early going in the second half, including a soap opera turn that is far too facile and convenient.
In the hands of a less skilled cast and less skilled director, all this talk would be so much debate.
But it is a mark of just how skillful this ensemble is, working under Jennifer Chambers' savvy direction, that it buckles without breaking and, indeed, fully bends back into shape. The family connections and disconnections are clear and deeply felt as "If I Forget" plays out through the light and shadows of John McDermott's evocative, expansive scenic design.
Jordan's masterly crafted Holly bears a sense of entitlement buoyed largely by her lawyer husband's substantial income. She can be tart, snappy, judgmental and she is indiscreet. She has a loose grip, at best, on confidences.
Kaminsky's nicely etched Sharon is an idealist whose sense of doing the morally right thing turns out to be shaped by her relationship with a member of the store's tenant proprietors.
Kathleen Wise's Ellen is a carefully measured blend of motherly concern and a palpable feeling of making the best of an unwelcoming situation with her husband's family; not to mention finding a level of comfort as the wife of a difficult, complex man, played by Crane with a forceful and anguished conviction that commands attention and empathy.
Josephthal's Joey is an engaging portrait of a 16-year-old who marches to the beat of his own drum and reveals, in an affecting second-act scene with his uncle, an awareness of something profound beyond his immediate experience and field of vision.
"Mom says the only way people live after they die is if we remember them. Except," he says to Michael with the innocent directness of youth, "what happens when the last person who remembers can't remember anymore?"
This is not easily forgotten theater.