Playwright Joshua Harmon performs an absorbing and deeply dramatic balancing act with “Prayer for the French Republic,” now at the Huntington Theatre Company (through Oct. 8), toggling effortlessly between a sweeping primer on the centuries-spanning, global migration of Jews to a very particular family story of fear, loss and love.
Harmon’s historic facts and figures, along with some weighty political debates, and some life-changing decisions, never overwhelm because they are anchored so deeply within four generations of fully realized, three-dimensional members of the Salomon family.
The first member we meet is Patrick (Tony Estrella), a somewhat estranged Salomon, who serves as commentator and introduces us to the ideas of family, home and history with a sometimes bitter bit of humor. For five generations his family sold pianos, with 22 stores across France, bringing the joy of music into people’s lives.
We meet the rest of the Salomon family in their longtime Paris apartment in 2016, at the moment when Molly (Talia Sulla), a distant cousin from the U.S. who is studying abroad, has come to spend the weekend with Marcelle Salomon Benhamou (Amy Resnick), her husband Charles Benhamou (understudy Nael Nacer at the performance I saw) and their two 20s-something children. Just as Marcelle finishes explaining the family tree a second time (which includes many far-flung branches), her son Daniel (Joshua Chessin-Yudin) arrives with a bloodied face, the victim of an antisemitic attack on the streets of Paris, provoked, says his mother, by wearing his yarmulke.
That auspicious opening scene provides a roadmap for Harmon, who explores the fear that begins to gnaw at Charles, the growing hatred against Jews in the country his wife’s family has called home for 150 years, the place his own parents fled to for safety and the country his shul prays to every week with the Prayer to the French Republic that gives the play its title.
Uprooting one’s family and moving somewhere safer is a recurring theme throughout Jewish history and so we go back in time to 1944, in that same Paris apartment where Marcelle’s elderly grandparents (Phyllis Kay and Peter Van Wagner) are living, somehow avoiding arrest, bickering pleasantly and spinning fantasies about where their three grown children are, until one son Lucien (Jared Troilo) and their 15-year-old grandson Pierre (Jesse Kodama) return from concentration camps shattered by the murders of their mother and sister. As the drama unfolds, the gaps in time begin to close. With a piano acting as the physical link between the generations, Harmon deftly tightens the connections as we learn what informs those decisions to stay or go.
Harmon also has a gift for heightened dialogue that feels natural and yet propels ideas, characters and plotlines forward, pulling us deeper into his world. His comic skills, which were on such great display in “Bad Jews,” offer respite from the difficult stories of persecution, without being glib. He has a great ear for situational comedy, providing laughs in the goofy getting-to-know-you conversations between Molly and Daniel, as well as the strident but well-meaning political rants of Daniel’s sister Elodie (Carly Zien), delivered passionately, almost without taking a breath.
Director Loretta Greco has cast a truly outstanding ensemble who offer a deep understanding of their characters infused with an individual actor’s personality. It’s delightful to see Phyllis Kay sashay around the dining room table, or Nael Nacer pause just one extra second before turning on his heel. But the star of this show is Resnick, who allows us to see a worried wife, a nagging mom, a successful academic, a frightened Jew, a guilt-ridden daughter — every phase of this character’s emotions offer insight into the wrenching decision to stay or go. “It’s the suitcase, or the coffin,” one character says.
Andrew Boyce’s lush apartment set feels overlarge — so many long stage crosses — and the rotating dining room table wore out its welcome after the first three spins. Greco is more successful with the smaller, revealing details that align with Harmon’s balancing act: alternating the darkness with the light of everyday acts like fluffing the pillows on the sofa, folding the cloth napkins again and again, shuffling the piles of messy papers, and ultimately, tracing your hands over the piano to say goodbye to that final concrete symbol of place for this family and their home.
As if all this weren’t captivating enough, the incomparable Will Lyman appears in the final scene as the now elderly Pierre (father to Marcelle and Patrick). With a glance, a nod and wide-eyed acceptance, he reminds Marcelle, “You have to think of the children.” In that simple moment, Harmon encapsulates the motivation for every immigrant down through the ages: family and the future.
“Prayer for the French Republic” continues on the Huntington Theatre Company mainstage through Oct. 8.