Is there any more powerful figure within a family than the matriarch?
At times confident and caring, other times subtle and sly, the literal givers of life within a family hold tremendous sway over their descendants. Equal parts example and cautionary tale, the matriarch is, after all, the root of the family tree. And all that comes with it.
Leopoldstadt’s Betsy Aidem returns to Broadway this season, playing a matriarch whose family is on the precipice of change, this time in Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic at the Samuel J. Friedman theatre. The multigenerational family drama has resulted in an equally familial environment backstage.
“I've had five husbands!” Aidem chuckles, referring to the extended development of Prayer for the French Republic since she did the first workshops. “It’s incredible how instantaneous the connection is. I'm playing a mother to two different children, I have a husband, I have a father, I have a brother. Each of those relationships might as well be a different role. It's been an exciting challenge, being so much to so many.”
That challenge, to divide oneself into ever-increasing roles to support those you care for, is perhaps the defining feature of the matriarch in American drama. Mothers are often depicted as everything to everyone. They are living metaphors from which their children learn, such as Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman. They are figures their children are destined to outgrow, like Violet Weston in August: Osage County.
In Prayer for the French Republic, Aidem plays Marcelle, a mother torn between two worlds as she faces down rising antisemitism in France—whether to stay put or flee with her family to Israel. As she struggles to communicate the lessons of their family history to her children, the play splits between 2016 and 1944. In what has become one of Harmon’s trademarks, he wrenches dark comedy from existential struggle as the story of the Benhamou family plays out, echoing the struggles that Jewish families have faced for centuries.
In many ways, the play feels like an evolved descendent of Harmon's breakout play Bad Jews. Both plays deal directly with the weight of diasporic Jewish identity, the degradation of family dynamics across generations, and the hot button topic of Zionism. While Prayer previously premiered in 2022, the current war between Israel and Palestine, and the firestorm it has sparked internationally, make the text feel positively prescient.
The piece could not have come at a better time for Aidem as well. “I didn't have a big family, because of similar reasons to the family in the play,” Aidem explains, referring to the forceful pruning of her family tree during the Holocaust. “When I did Leopoldstadt last season, a woman approached me after a performance who worked for the Anti-Defamation League. She was an archival historian, and she helped me research my family history.” After decades of unanswered questions, Aidem suddenly had the answers that had haunted her family for nearly a century. “She found exactly the month and the location of where my family was taken in and murdered.”
These facts, mere notes on a ledger, make up the severed limbs of Aidem’s family, the open wound with which many Jews are born. Working on both Leopoldstadt and Prayer for the French Republic has helped to heal that wound, even as current events continue to tear at its edges.
“The looming threat of antisemitism that runs through both plays just so happens to have caught up with me at this juncture in my life, nearly posthumous,” Aidem smiles wryly (she exaggerates, since she’s 66 years old). “It's an interesting thing. I've been in a nun's habit twice, I’ve played a Muslim woman, I've screamed scripture in plays, I've worn crosses. I've played so many different kinds of people, but my true Jewish identity is just now coming full circle for me.”
Aidem has had a thriving career, appearing on screen in The Bleeding House, See You in the Morning, A Vigilante, and The Americans, as well as onstage in All The Way, Steel Magnolias and Five Women Wearing the Same Dress. In 2007, she was awarded a special Obie Award for Sustained Excellence of Performance. Though it can be argued, in spite of it all, that Prayer for the French Republic is her breakout production.
When the play first opened Off-Broadway, Aidem was showered with praise, netting nominations for the Lucille Lortel and Outer Critics Circle awards. The impact the show has had upon its audiences moves Aidem immensely. “A lot of the people who came to Leopoldstadt came up to me to ask when Prayer was coming to Broadway. People just felt like it stayed with them, that they got inside the family. And it is inside me, too.”
Grandma Emilia in Leopoldstadt exists somewhat on the periphery of the family's tragedy, a woman attempting to place names in photo albums filled with family members long since passed. By contrast, Prayer for the French Public places Aidem in the center of the picture.
“The play is a truly beautiful and hilarious portrait of a family, in the midst of this rising crisis. There's a sibling relationship that's becoming fractured, a marriage that's being tested, children leaving home, and deciding how to care for an elderly parent,” explains Aidem. And that’s just inside the safety of their home. Outside the front door, both 2016 and 1944 Paris are fraught with tension as antisemitism rises to precipitous heights.
Whereas Paris was under Nazi occupation for much of 1944, in 2016, the threat was homegrown. Numerous seemingly-random attacks were levied against French Jews, with 2016 seeing several knife and machete attacks against individuals who dared to appear "Jewish" in public while unknowingly in the presence of extremists.
“I've lived in New York almost 48 years,” Aidem recalls, referring to her life as an American Jew. “Everybody's a little more frightened lately, but we've been very lucky to live in relatively safe times. This play allows the audience to experience a visceral time travel, and I think it allows everyone to go, ‘Oh, I wonder if that's what my grandparents were thinking. I wonder if they sat at that kind of table? Were they worrying about us?’”
As the world continues to spin, and mothers continue to worry about their children, Aidem hopes Prayer for the French Republic will help audiences build empathy. “That's, to me, the most important function of art. I feel it when I go to museums, when a piece is labeled 'Anonymous'—the labor to make a thing of beauty, forgotten. The way Josh has written this show, you feel like these people have become your friends. ‘I know that mother, I have that issue with my father, I know that brother,’ and so on. If this play allows an opportunity for somebody to say, ‘You know what, I need to repair that relationship,’ it will all be worth it. We all need to be more humane.”