Some plays possess a combination of excellence and emotional power that renders you speechless for a time after the performance ends. Or they incite you to immediately babble excitedly about what you’ve just seen. Or both, in their turn.
“Prayer for the French Republic,” a superb multigenerational drama by Joshua Harmon that is opening the fall season at the Huntington, is likely to have at least one of those effects on anyone who sees it.
Wonderfully acted by an 11-member cast under the pitch-perfect direction of Loretta Greco, “Prayer for the French Republic” explores antisemitism, Jewish identity, and the unhealed wounds of history through the prism of a Parisian family’s experiences in two time periods: 1944-1946, during and just after World War II and the Holocaust; and 2016-2017, when hate crimes and general hostility toward Jews seem to be on the rise in Paris and beyond.
“Where are Jews safe?” one character asks, an anguished question that runs through this work.
The shattering intimacy of “Prayer for the French Republic” plays out against the vast backdrop of a past where, the family knows, not being able to leave a dangerous environment in time has exacted a terrible cost. (The word “safe” appears 28 times in Harmon’s script.)
As Boston theatergoers know from SpeakEasy Stage Company’s productions of “Bad Jews,” “Admissions,” and “Significant Other,” Harmon has a stiletto-sharp wit and a gift for populating his plays with a gallery of vivid personalities.
That gift is on display, and then some, in “Prayer,” Harmon’s most ambitious play yet. For Greco, it’s an auspicious beginning to her first full season as artistic director of the Huntington. The production runs nearly three hours, with one intermission, but it’s a fast three hours. I doubt you’ll be looking at your watch; there’s a kind of electric current that runs through Harmon’s dialogue.
An act of violence sets the play in motion. In 2016, 26-year-old Daniel (Joshua Chessin-Yudin), who wears a yarmulke, is attacked on the street and showered with antisemitic taunts. His fed-up and fearful father, Charles (Nael Nacer), declares it is time for the family to move to Israel.
Charles’s wife, Marcelle (Amy Resnick), is fiercely opposed to a move — at first. Resnick beautifully traces Marcelle’s troubling journey of awakening as she starts to feel increasingly unwelcome in a city and nation she had always thought of as home.
A welcome presence in the cast is Tony Estrella, who is the artistic director of Rhode Island’s Gamm Theatre and an actor of note. He plays Marcelle’s brother, Patrick, who provides narration. Harmon’s interest in the volatility of family dynamics surfaces again in “Prayer”; even before Patrick and Charles engage in a fierce verbal clash, it’s clear there’s no love lost between the two.
Observing it all is Molly (Talia Sulla), a distant American cousin visiting Paris for the first time. She begins to have romantic feelings for Daniel, and those feelings are reciprocated.
Then there’s Elodie (Carly Zien), Daniel’s ferociously opinionated sister, who is reminiscent of the firebrand Daphna, from “Bad Jews.” Harmon has a knack for torrential monologues, and Zien has a doozy to deliver. She brings it off very well.
On Andrew Boyce’s handsomely designed set, scenes from 1944-46 flow into scenes from 2016-2017, connecting the present with the past. In the ‘40s, we see an elderly married couple, Irma (Phyllis Kay) and Adolphe (Peter Van Wagner), in their Paris apartment, desperately awaiting word of family members who were sent to concentration camps, including their 40-something son, Lucien (Jared Troilo), and their 15-year-old grandson, Pierre (Jesse Kodama).
Pierre will eventually grow up to become the father of Marcelle and Patrick. He is played in old age by Will Lyman, who does not appear until very late in the play. But Lyman, as ever, proves worth the wait.
Harmon covers thematic ground that, in broad outline, is similar to Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt,” which won this year’s Tony Award for best play and recently wrapped up its Broadway run. I saw “Leopoldstadt,” and it’s a fine play, but I don’t think “Prayer for the French Republic” yields an inch in terms of quality and impact. I say that as a longtime admirer of Stoppard.
After a production of “Prayer” ran off-Broadway last year, one is slated to begin performances on Broadway in January. Odds are it will prove worthy of praise, but frankly it’s hard to see how the Huntington’s first-rate production can be bettered.
PRAYER FOR THE FRENCH REPUBLIC
Play by Joshua Harmon. Directed by Loretta Greco. Presented by the Huntington. At the Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave. Through Oct. 8. Tickets $30-$155. 617-266-0800, huntingtontheatre.org