Loretta Greco, the Huntington’s artistic director now in her second year, jokes that she may be gaining a reputation “as the lady who loves to do epic, three-act Jewish plays.”
“I mean, that isn’t a bad moniker to have, right?,” she says after a recent rehearsal. In June and July, the theater concluded its 2022-23 season with the sprawling Tony Award winner “The Lehman Trilogy,” tracing the journey of three Jewish immigrant brothers as they sowed the seeds for what would become their namesake investment bank. Now, the Huntington’s new season kicks off with another generation-spanning saga, Joshua Harmon’s “Prayer for the French Republic,” about a contemporary Jewish family grappling with rising antisemitism in France that challenges their sense of home and belonging. The drama, which won the 2022 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, begins performances Sept. 7 at the Huntington Theatre.
“It felt like a bold choice to open the season,” says Greco, who’s directing the play. “I’m excited about bringing big, juicy, complicated stories to the stages here, and this play is asking big questions at a pivotal moment in time.”
Set in 2016-17 Paris, woven together with scenes flashing back to the 1940s, “Prayer for the French Republic” examines the crisis that unfolds within one French family as antisemitism hits home, in a bloody and brutal way, when 26-year-old Daniel (Joshua Chessin-Yudin) is assaulted while wearing a kippah.
His physician father Charles (Barzin Akhavan) is an Algerian refugee and Sephardic Jew whose family fled persecution for the safety of France when he was a kid. Daniel’s strong-willed mother, Marcelle (Amy Resnick), is a psychiatrist and “quintessentially French.” She and her brother Patrick (Tony Estrella), who functions as the play’s narrator, are descended from Ashkenazi Jews with a centuries-long history in France. Their father and grandfather survived the Holocaust, but the siblings were raised in a mixed Jewish-Catholic household and can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“Marcelle is fierce and the smartest in the room,” Greco says. “She’s always right, which is why she’s not going to let you get a word in edgewise. And she’s very French — direct and hilarious.”
After the assault on Daniel and with increasing threats of antisemitic violence around the country, Charles comes home and makes a startling pronouncement: He doesn’t feel safe in France anymore and he wants to move to Israel.
The play examines the debate over whether the family should stay and fight or leave to seek refuge elsewhere. “What happens when your partner wants something or needs something that is diametrically opposed to your needs and wants and what you perceive as the family’s needs and wants?” Greco says.
Marcelle and Charles’s voluble 28-year-old daughter Elodie (Carly Zien) never lacks for opinions and has been grappling with mental health challenges. Marcelle also helps care for her elderly father, Pierre (Will Lyman), who runs a piano store that’s been in the family for five generations. Into this milieu arrives Molly (Talia Sulla), a 21-year-old distant cousin from America who’s studying in Paris for the semester. Reeling from Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, she develops a growing bond with Daniel.
“I love the exercise of empathy that happens when we see Marcelle’s point of view, we see Charles’s point of view, we see the kids’ point of view, and Molly’s point of view, and we vacillate between them during the course of it,” Greco says. “The really great plays make everybody right. So truth becomes a mixture. It’s a gray zone that’s not so easily discernible.”
Greco produced a workshop of “Prayer” at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in 2019, where she previously served as artistic director. The play premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club’s off-Broadway stage in 2022, directed by David Cromer, and that production, with a cast to be announced, will transfer to Broadway in December.
Interwoven with the contemporary story are scenes set during and immediately after World War II, where we meet Pierre’s grandparents as they await news about their missing children and grandchildren. “In the ‘40s, the family is wrestling with: How do we begin again after so much devastation?” Greco says. “So I hope that people leave thinking about the resilience and the agency of humanity.”
While Marcelle and her brother Patrick are close, Patrick is stridently secular and dismisses Charles’s concerns about the growing threat to Jews in France. “He doesn’t want to believe that this [violence], which is historical and has happened in his own family within a couple of generations, could possibly happen again,” Estrella says.
Yet what’s happening in France has been viewed by some as a harbinger. Three-quarters of French Jews survived the Holocaust, and the country is home to the largest Jewish population in Europe. However, the increasing number of Jews migrating from France to Israel from 2010 to 2019 has been traced in part to fears of antisemitism.
For Resnick, who’s Jewish, playing Marcelle has been especially poignant because her Aunt Helen was one of France’s “hidden children” who were smuggled into the countryside to live on farms or in rural households when the Nazis arrived. “She said she just cried every night for two years. She didn’t know what happened to her parents or her family until at the end of the war. So she really lived this story in some ways.”
In plays like “Admissions,” “Bad Jews,” and “Significant Other,” which have been produced at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Harmon is known for his searing monologues, spirited dialogue, and heated debates that compel audiences to keep altering their perspectives.
“I know that I love a playwright when I agree with whoever happens to be speaking at the time,” says Estrella, who has produced “Bad Jews” and “Admissions” as artistic director of Rhode Island’s Gamm Theatre. “He’s a master of the aria. He gives characters such surprising and shocking speeches.
“With every play, you’re like, ‘Yeah, what he said!’ and then ‘No, what she said! That’s what I agree with now!” It’s constantly refracting from a different angle and never lets you stay settled. Just when you think you’re sure, it upends you again.”
PRAYER FOR THE FRENCH REPUBLIC
Presented by the Huntington. At Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave. Sept. 7-Oct. 8. Tickets from $30. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.