We live in an interesting and difficult time, but maybe every generation does. This generation is either on their screens or in their heads, and when I say this generation, I’m not talking about the kids or young people. We turn to our phones for information, distraction, reassurance and connection. I’m not sure these mini computers that we call phones delivers any of that. Seeing Prayer for the French Republic is an opportunity not only to put the phones away for a few hours but to reflect on so much about life, family, history, and societal norms, expectations and shifts. Prayer for the French Republic runs from now until October 8th and is a show I recommend making a priority to see because it took me on a journey like few plays recently have. The three hour time flew by thanks to the quality of the acting and story line.
I see my own family on stage and at The Huntington’s Prayer for the French Republic because my family’s history has so many crossovers with the Salomon family’s, and I can only review it from my intertwined perspective. There are, however some universal truths in Prayer for the French Republic. The characters were interesting with some story lines that are specific to being Jewish but others that are familiar in any family regardless of culture or religion. The set was beautiful. The story took you through time and place in a meaningful and thought-provoking way.
Prayer for the French Republic is about life in Paris, Jewish life in Paris, but barely Jewish life in Paris as in not a focus on the religion and practicing Judaism but just living a fairly non-religious life as a Jew. It is not that the cast of character are barely Jewish, but the play is less about religion and more about tradition, culture, identity, and how it creates “otherness”. With each member of the Salomon Benhamou family practicing and feeling Jewish on a range of levels. The common denominator is that despite how deeply Jewish or not each person identifies as, French anti-semitism is making them feel their otherness.
Left to right: The cast of Prayer for the French Republic
PRAYER FOR THE FRENCH REPUBLIC
Photograph © T Charles Erickson
The play is set on two timelines 2015-16, the time of the Charlie Hebo and 1944-46 when Jews were being deported and fleeing the Nazis. Going back to the topic of phones for information and distraction, perhaps it is human nature, it seems that regardless of age (except maybe very young children) or generation, we are always in our heads. We are hungry for information and answers. While we live in an age with access to more of that than every before, I’m not sure we are any better off in terms of having our questions answered. While Prayer for the French Republic offers some snippets of history and current events, the greater offering of the play is one of a contemporary family dealing with a combination of every day family dynamics and issues. While the source of tensions change in different family and culture we all have them. As part of being in our heads, and seeking more information, one thing we discuss more openly these days is mental health. We may not be addressing it much better than before, but topics are out there and people are talking and connecting over shared experiences when it comes to mental health. We have heard more recently about intergenerational trauma as well, trauma that is passed down from one generation to the next not just in behavior patterns but also actual biological changes, history repeating itself not just in politics and society but within families as well. Prayer for the French Republic side by side presentation of a family’s current reality and historic one was seminal in pushing the very real storyline of so many people a little deeper. History repeating itself and dictating so much of the present situation within the family was so easy to grasp when seeing several generations of the Salomon family side by side on stage in conversation about their children and children’s children. I don’t fully understand intergenerational trauma, but what I do understand is parenthood and fear: fear for the safety of my children, fear for the future of our world, and fear for the state of our planet.
This all sound very heavy and depressing, but Prayer for the French Republic is not at all. It is perfectly balanced. I definitely shed some tears, but I think I was in an especially sensitive state. I didn’t leave feeling overwhelmed, depressed or down in any way, but rather it gave me comfort. I felt comfort in not having answers. I felt in good company for all those times in family life that answers are not straight forward, clear or ever known perhaps. I could easily go see The Huntington’s Prayer for the French Republic again and I’m sure each time I would take a new thought about relationships and family with me. I would also see this cast again in just about anything. The acting and family dynamic among the actors was perfection. Amy Resnick was a force as, Marcelle Salomon Benhamou, a Parisian woman, mother and Jewish matriarch. The sibling played by Carly Zien and Joshua Chessin-Yudin had such a real dynamic with nothing over-acted or too subtle. I also enjoyed the American cousin played by Talia Sulla, while my friend found her character too subtle, I appreciated that role and didn’t find it needed more oomph. The relationship between Marcelle Salomon, the mother, and her husband played by Tony Estrella was also so well acted. There was something familiar and very real about the relationship with nothing cliché. I have a slightly mad and quirky Jewish family, 1/2 in Europe and 1/2 in Canada, and somehow at different points in the play each of these characters seemed to channel different members of my family. From the rants of the young, rightfully, jaded Elodie Benhamou to the hard working, business owner, Adolphe Salomon carefully navigating his wife’s needs sharing only so much information about extended family during the war these are people I know in real life.
Tickets for Prayer for the French Republic can be purchased here. Prayer for the French Republic runs from now through October 8th at The Huntington Theatre (264 Huntington Ave.). The newly renovated Huntington Theatre is one of the few in Boston where tall people can sit comfortably which is, as I have been going to more shows with my tall husband, rare and necessary. You can see The Huntington Theatre’s full season here.