COURTESY OF THE MAJESTIC THEATRE
Majestic Readers' Theatre Company explores a dynamic on the brink in 'If I Forget'
B Y C O R Y F R Y E
What does it mean to be Jewish in a shattered modern America? For years, few staged entertainments provided an adequate response to that question.
In “Outsiders of Long Standing” (American Theatre, February/March 2018), Russell M. Dembin examined a small burst of postmillennial works in David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’ The Band’s Visit and Paula Vogel’s Indecent. The author also devoted considerable space to a young playwright, Steven Levenson, whose compelling If I Forget had debuted less than a year earlier in New York. Accolades drowned the achievement, with the Times hailing it as “passionate and provoking” in its depiction of a Jewish family navigating its fracturing dynamic.
The American Theatre essay intrigued Robert Leff enough to read and subsequently pitch If I Forget for the Majestic Readers’ Theatre Company’s 2020-21 season. As is custom for directorial hopefuls, he brought two candidates to the group’s committee, both with storylines tailored for the culture: If I Forget and Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play (2018), a one-act satire tracking an allegedly inclusive touring Native American Month production that nevertheless boasts not a single indigenous cast member and is overseen by a cultural consultant who, in truth, is white.
Thanksgiving streaming rights couldn’t be cleared in time, and Leff barely had room to cast If I Forget. So the former was set aside for future consideration (“I’d still like to do it, because I think it says a lot about the way the world is now,” he said), and in December, the director embarked on a hunt for Forget’s central Fischers.
Forget opens in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2000, months before a presidential election that saw George W. Bush triumph over Al Gore in a bitterly contested victory, and not long after Middle East peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians disintegrated at Camp David. Liberal Jewish studies professor Michael Fischer and his two sisters, Holly and Sharon Fischer, visit their father, Lou, for his 75th birthday. The newly widowed World War II veteran suffers from failing health, a condition perhaps exacerbated by his only son’s upcoming book, which challenges the Holocaust’s relevance to contemporary Jewish identity. (Such horrors, Michael seems to argue, are best left in the past.) A second act set seven months later, in early 2001, finds the family bickering anew after Lou’s debilitating stroke, sparking campaigns between siblings over responsibility for their father’s care and the future of a family-owned clothing store, against the backdrop of a country then unknowingly steeling itself for even greater conflict.
Leff had submitted Forget before the pandemic. (In fact, his Majestic Readers’ Theatre Company production of Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth, staged in September 2020, was the first to conduct rehearsals by Zoom and one of the last to be livestreamed from the venue.) One of the casting advantages he discovered some months later was the ability to search far and wide. No one had to show up at a central location; they could log in online from anywhere, even from different states.
This allowed Leff to cast Wendy Aronson of Denver, Colorado, as Holly, the elder of the Fischer sisters. Aronson had heard about the auditions from her father, Majestic Readers’ Theatre Company artistic director Mike Aronson. (She last appeared before local audiences in 1991's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.) Her participation proved integral. She explained some of Forget’s subtleties and enlisted her own rabbi, Rachel Kobrin of Denver’s Congregation Rodef Shalom, for a post-performance talkback.
“My father was Jewish, but my mother was not,” Leff said. “So technically I’m not considered Jewish. I may have gotten some of the nuances if I’d had more time for research. But there’s only so much you can do online. So, she brought a lot to the play. All the cast brought a lot to the play.”
The ensemble also features Lance Nuttman as Michael Fischer, a somewhat problematic character whose controversial perspectives may — and do — rattle his family. His intellectual stance alone is enough to provoke and concern. But Nuttman, a member of McMinnville’s Gallery Players of Oregon, was well-suited for the part.
“I knew I needed an actor with a strong presence who played well with others,” Leff said. “That was my central concern. Several men submitted; all the auditions were on video. What I did was ask them, ‘Please read this speech by this character.’ What I chose for Michael was one of his more-fiery speeches.
“One of the things Lance and I talked about with Michael is that he lives in his head. He is the only son in the family. So he could do no wrong in his mother’s eyes. Although he does wrong as a child, and he keeps writing letters and has drawings where he apologizes to his mother. He’s kind-of distant in some ways.”
Patriarch Lou Fischer’s central piece is a devastating monologue about his wartime experiences at the Dachau concentration camp, delivered to his son as response to his book. Leff collaborated with Majestic stalwart Michael Wren (Bloomsday, The Gin Game, The Last Romance) on its sobering tone and ensured that it never became too familiar as memorized lines, that it was an ancient fresh hell confessed, relived in the moment for the very first time.
“That’s a really powerful speech,” Leff said. “I told Michael, ‘I think this is the first time he’s ever spoken of this.’ Reading about people who had served in the military, I saw they don’t talk to their children about it. I’m sure there are Vietnam vets who have not talked to their children or their spouses. So, Michael [Wren] had a pretty good grasp of it from the beginning, and then he kind-of worked on it on his own. He would come up in rehearsal and I would give him feedback. The way he was playing it, it was not comfortable. Telling the story is not comfortable for him. I said, ‘We need to keep that focus.’
"People in plays don’t perform long speeches just to show off. There’s got to be a reason. Even before casting the show, thinking about Lou, I realized this could become a long, angry speech and nothing else. I had to find a reason why Lou tells this story. And it’s clear in the play that there’s a strained relationship between father and son. Lou delivers the speech to say, ‘Here’s the real world, son. You can write your book, but this is the real world.’”
Forget's own universe proved difficult to navigate in a Zoom setting. For instance, how do actors effectively explore a family when they're separated by miles and appear only as screens to one another? According to Leff, that didn’t present much of an issue. Some of the actors had previously worked together; Nuttman and Beth Sobo Turk, who plays the younger Fischer sister, Sharon, already enjoyed a professional relationship on the McMinnville stage, most famously in the title roles in a 2019 production of Beauty and the Beast.
Other issues required more creative solutions. A scene involving Michael Fischer’s wife, Ellen (Arlee Olson; Women Playing Hamlet, On the Verge), and nephew, Joey (John Lamb) required the former to wait for the latter to speak before speaking in his stead — easy enough to convey when performers occupy the same physical space, reacting to one another, but more challenging when separated electronically. So Leff suggested that Olson sip her coffee, look expectantly toward Lamb, then sip again, smile, and begin her dialogue when it becomes evident that Joey's otherwise occupied.
The two-and-a-half-hour play (with a five-minute intermission) initially covered three rooms in Lou Fischer’s house: a guest room, a dining room, and a living room. Circumstances confined this production to a single area, even when characters normally moved from one space to another. Leff credits Majestic stage manager Amanda Vander Hyde with manuevering beyond those limitations and producing creative workarounds.
“We talked and she said, 'Robert, I don’t think that’s going to work. It’s going to be too confusing,’” Leff said. “But in one of the scenes, the stage directions read, 'We see Lou in the living room.’ So in the second act’s first scene, the two daughters are interacting with their father. That was OK; we're all in the same room. But then we just see him. I said, 'OK, we can’t do that.’
“One night at rehearsal, Amanda said, ‘I think we can find a way to see Lou at the beginning of the scene even though he has no dialogue. But they talk about him.’ She would make a video copy of our rehearsal. And when she worked out the moment, she said, "Let me show this to you. If you don’t like it, we’ll cut it.’ I watched and thought, ‘Oh! That’ll work.’ She came up with a wonderful solution that really worked. I relied a lot on Amanda. She’s done a wonderful job.”
Following the play's Feb. 27-28 run is a live March 2 discussion on Jewish identity moderated by Dr. Julie Lieber, Chief Jewish Life and Engagement Officer for JEWISHColorado. Panelists include Rabbi Phil Bressler of Corvallis’ Bet Am, Rabbi Rachel Kobrin of Denver, Leff, and his cast members. The talkback begins at 6:30 p.m. and is included with the show’s admission price ($10-$20). The session was inspired in part by the Why We Theater podcast, which late last year featured Levenson in a round table with a scholar and rabbi (“‘If I Forget’ and American Jews, Anti-Semitism, and Tribalism”).
“I thought it would be interesting to do a talkback,” Leff said. “We’ve done one for all my Readers’ Theatre shows. We weren’t sure if we were going to do it, but now that everything’s on Zoom, would that be possible? And then Wendy listened to that podcast because I shared it with the cast: ‘This will give you some insight into the why Steven wrote the play.’ Wendy said, ‘Why can’t we do something like it?’
“Levenson said a lot of the things in the play are things that he has heard or talked about with his friends, people of his generation, and he wasn’t finding that in plays, movies, or in television programs. So that was part of the inspiration for writing the play.”
At this writing, the performance had been recorded for its online debut, but Leff had seen only a first draft, as edited by Chad Howard. Nonetheless, Leff said, despite its gravitas, If I Forget is also quite funny, its humor deriving from the family’s interplay.
“But it’s not a comedy,” he said. “They’re not setting up jokes. It’s very natural. That’s the other thing that really appealed to me about this play: Levenson writes the way people talk. So it’s very believable that this is a family. They sound like real people. The more we worked on the show, the more we realized, ‘Yeah, that’s the way people talk.’”
The 36-year-old Levenson’s adept at drama-tinged comedy; he previously explored teen awkwardness in 2009’s Seven Minutes in Heaven and wrote for the Showtime series Masters of Sex, which dramatized the real-life sexuality research team of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Other works include Days of Rage, the book for Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen, and an upcoming revival of Fiddler on the Roof.
But If I Forget remains his most remarkable achievement to date, a memorable foray into a family on the brink.
CHECK IT OUT
WHAT: "If I Forget"
PRESENTED BY Majestic Readers' Theatre Company at the Majestic Theatre, Corvallis
WHEN: The show will be available to stream anytime during the weekend of Feb. 27-28 (Saturday-Sunday)
WHERE: Zoom; a link to the stream will be sent via email
COST: $10-$20, with a $2 processing fee for tickets purchased online (the tickets also include admission to a March 2 talkback; see below)
TALKBACK: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 2, also via Zoom
LINEUP: Dr. Julie Lieber, Chief Jewish Life and Engagement Officer for Jewish Colorado (moderator), with Rabbi Phil Bressler of Beit Am in Corvallis, Rabbi Rachel Kobrin of Congregation Rodef Shalom in Denver, Colorado, Robert Leff, and "If I Forget" cast members.