PITTSFIELD — The swinging pendulum of heritage has been known to pull certain generations closer to the past and distance others from its grasp. In Steven Levenson's "If I Forget," that oscillation is one of several developments destabilizing the Fischers, who have gathered to celebrate patriarch Lou's 75th birthday in the Tenleytown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. While Lou's daughters, Holly and Sharon, attempt to honor some of the Jewish family's cultural and religious traditions, son Michael is an atheist Jewish studies professor whose unsympathetic forthcoming book doesn't exactly endear him to those occupying Lou's home.
"Honest to God, if I heard him on the street, I would think he was an anti-Semite," Holly says at one point to Michael's wife, Ellen.
That's just one example of the brutal honesty that propels "If I Forget," now previewing at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage, where it is scheduled to run through Sept. 8. Press opening is Sunday afternoon at 3.
From the playwright of "Dear Evan Hansen," the work mixes humor and drama, touching on nearly all of the taboo table topics: politics, money, sex and, frequently, religion. Though the future of Lou's care — his wife has died — and the family store steer the plot, sibling rivalries related to religious observance, career choices and parental oversight tend to dominate the action.
"We're really looking at what is being passed on from generation to generation, and the middle generation, the sons and daughters who are now also parents (and) grappling with their own sense of identity inside of their religion, inside of their culture, inside of their home, inside of themselves," said director Jennifer Chambers, during a group interview with actors J. Anthony Crane and Robert Zukerman.
Crane plays Michael. At the play's outset, he is grappling with his daughter Abby's participation in Birthright and her increasing religiosity. It's July of 2000, just days after talks between Israel and Palestine broke down at the Camp David Summit, and Michael is still fighting for progress by shunning conformity, religious or otherwise, most notably in his book.
"That is the proud love-child of my character's attempts to have an opinion in the world today and truly find his identity in the continuum of his tradition as a man, as an academic, as a Jew," Crane said. "He's living in a time that no longer seems to have room for his idealism."
As Michael and Abby's separate struggles emerge in later scenes, Cranes sees a connection between their difficulties.
"It's almost like she's the casualty of whatever's happening in Israel at the moment, and in America, he's the casualty of what's happened politically here," Crane said. "He's got this idealism, and he's basically being run over by conservative-right sentiment, the inability to hold the liberal view out here and still be an American with any political standing or academic standing."
Sharon and Holly don't hesitate to offer their own critiques of Michael's work.
"There is nothing apologetic or polite about them, which, specifically for a female character, is just amazing to be able to have that in the play and not feel like they're shrinking violets or trying to please the men in their life," Chambers said.
Holly, Sharon and Michael have all been vying to demonstrate affection for their living parent and their deceased one. Their self-awareness levels vary.
"I think they're all acting from a place of deep love for their family and for their siblings, but while that exists, there's also a competitive aspect of who has the more attention from the remaining patriarch and who's done more, who's participated more, who's shown up more," Chamber said. "And I think, at times, so much of the humor of the play comes from the truth of which the writer pulls from, which is, in every family, when two siblings are together, they usually collude and come together and find their own sense of intimacy at the expense of another family member who's not in the room."
For Zukerman, who plays Lou, the back-and-forths are uncommonly volatile.
"When you see the way my three ignorant children embrace each other one second and rip each other's guts out the next second, I think people are going to be stunned," Zukerman said.
At the same time, the dialogue is familiar to Zukerman, whose character's spare but poignant words about history and heritage carry ample weight in the story. The actor grew up "inches away from where this play takes place" in a Russian Jewish family.
"It is authentic. There's no question about that," he said.
In addition to the broader statements about cultural tradition, "If I Forget" examines the schisms between Jewish denominations and different families' countries of origin.
"I think it's going to incite some serious post-show discussion," Zukerman said of the play.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.