The formidable drive of immigrants. The dramatic evolution of wealth-building in the United States from the pre-Civil War years on into the first decade of the 21st century. The differences between the North and the South. The impact of warfare in the background, and a recession in the foreground. The immense gains during the stock market’s boom times, and the stunning pain in its dramatically bad “bust times.” And of course money, money, money, and change, change, change.
All this and more is what drives “The Lehman Trilogy,” the fascinating chronicle of a monumental aspect of American history written by the Italian playwright Stefano Massini, and deftly adapted by the British writer Ben Power.
And now, in its Chicago premiere (a joint production by TimeLine Theatre and Broadway in Chicago) it is being ideally performed by three fabulously gifted Chicago actors — Mitchell J. Fain (as Henry Lehman), Anish Jethmalani (as Emanuel), and Joey Slotnick (as Mayer) — under the dynamic direction of Nick Bowling and Vanessa Stalling. And it plays out on a set of sheer brilliance designed by Collette Pollard.
With a rapidly moving running time of about three hours and 10 minutes (including two intermissions) the play traces the lives of these three Jewish brothers who emigrated from Bavaria to Montgomery, Alabama, between 1844 and 1850, ran a dry-goods shop, and then moved into the cotton-trading business there.
In the 1860s, following the death of Henry from yellow fever, the two surviving brothers moved to New York and expanded their business immensely over the decades as their offspring and others gradually assumed the helm. The business, dubbed Lehman Brothers, became one of the largest and most innovative investment bank empires in the world.
Then, in September of 2008, came a great shock as the operation made the stunning announcement that it was about to declare bankruptcy — an event that embodied the Great Recession of the period.
At once a multi-generational family story, and an epic tale of the U.S. as a financial powerhouse that moved into a meltdown, this production winningly captures the evolution of the grand-scale forces that continue to drive the economics of the capitalist world. (An insert in the show’s program provides theatergoers with an excellent timeline and an annotated history of the Lehman Brothers’ mega-business.)
To watch the production’s three actors as they make their way around the show’s remarkable set (a mountain of shelves stacked high with white file boxes, desks and office chairs), and as they age, and morph into the various characters involved in what began as a family business and expanded to include coal, railroads and a great deal more over the decades, is mightily impressive. And the script is riveting — capturing the tone of the original Lehmans, their “generational replacements,” their spouses, and their rivals — with the three actors seamlessly suggesting these characters’ ages and personalities. The play makes exceptional mental and physical demands on the cast of three, and they not only endure but soar on those demands while making the transformative history of the Lehman business — a capsule version of this country’s history — crystal clear.
Of course history has a tendency to repeat itself, but always with twists and turns. And watching this epic work that spans 160 years of turmoil and change in pursuit of what might be seen as the American dream, also clearly suggests the potential aspects of American catastrophe.
One final note: After a longtime lack of the full use of the ideally modeled 549-seat Broadway Playhouse (situated right behind Water Tower Place), this joint undertaking by TimeLine Theatre and Broadway in Chicago is finally making the most of the underutilized theater. I hope many more bookings will be coming up
“The Lehman Trilogy” has been extended through Nov. 26 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St. For tickets visit BroadwayInChicago.com.
Note: This article has been updated to correct the show’s running time.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic