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Narrative-driven ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ entrances at Shakespeare Theatre Company


From left: René Thornton Jr., Mark Nelson and Edward Gero in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "The Lehman Trilogy" (Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography)

Three men telling a family story spanning three generations over the course of three hours and two intermissions doesn’t sound like a formula for riveting theatre. But “The Lehman Trilogy” – extended at Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) through March 30 – mesmerizes nonetheless due to excellent writing and acting, its tale so immersive you may not want it to end.

 

The play, adapted by playwright Ben Power from Stefano Massini’s original, follows the fate of the Lehman family from the moment eldest son Henry immigrates to America from Germany “with nothing” in 1844 – followed a few years later by brothers Emmanuel and Mayer – to the collapse into bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers financial empire in 2008.


From humble beginnings selling fabric in Alabama, the brothers narrate how and why they expand into selling raw cotton to textile mills in the North, resiliently withstanding catastrophes such as a fire destroying Alabama cotton plantations and, later, the Civil War.

From left: Edward Gero, René Thornton Jr. and Mark Nelson in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "The Lehman Trilogy" (Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography)

But this is not a dry history lesson. The precise and vivid details of the narration, related with rhythmic repetition, render it mesmerizing. The Alabama shop is repeatedly defined by its red door handle that sticks. “Rimpar, Bavaria” – the brothers’ ancestral home – is also mentioned frequently, eventually becoming only an empty name for the American-born children grandchildren.

 

The humanity and humor of the three brothers also make their story compelling as they move naturally about the stage while engaging in dynamic dialogue, with youngest brother Mayer (Mark Nelson) a smooth-talking “potato” running interference between “head” Henry (Edward Gero) and action-driven “arm” Emmanuel (RenéThornton, Jr.).

 

Seeming digressions into marriages and children become intrinsically meaningful, the three actors delightfully stepping in as wives with minimal props such as a scarf or fan, and even portraying young children, some of whom become prominent in the family business – especially Phillip, who strategically expands into transportation, and his own more aesthetically oriented son Bobby, who literally dances to the twisty tune of money.

 

The brothers’ original business morphs as cotton and other commodities traded in New York are eventually replaced by paper representing those companies traded on the Stock Exchange. Eventually, trades happen on computers, with digital numbers flowing across the background of the stage – pixilated currency gained and lost in split seconds.

From left: René Thornton Jr., Mark Nelson and Edward Gero in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "The Lehman Trilogy" (Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography)

The story is thus also one of economics and business in America, humanized by lively characters who prosper, but who also suffer nightmares and personal losses. The deaths of the brothers, one by one, are marked by sitting shiva, reading the Kaddish and other Jewish rights that we see grow weaker in the family over each generation.

 

This rich tapestry, artfully woven together by the three superb actors, is enhanced by a simple set (designed by Marsha Ginsberg) strewn with piles of shredded documents, and lighting (by Yi Zhao) anchored by a hanging trellis of fluorescent tube lights – both suggesting a deconstructed investment-bank office.

From left: Mark Nelson, Edward Gero and René Thornton Jr. in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "The Lehman Trilogy" (Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography)

The men’s wool suits and sweaters (designed by Anita Yavich) take us from the mid-1800s through a century-and-a-half of the Lehman family story. Background video (designed by Hannah Wasileski) adds dimension and evokes place, from Alabama cotton fields to New York streets, as do simple shelves, tables and chairs changed for each act.

 

Sound designer and composer Michael Costagliola’s music subtly reflects mood as it segues between scenes. Each of the three acts has its own feel and rhythm, the second perhaps the most compelling in terms of story development.

 

Directed by Arin Arbus, this production of “The Lehman Trilogy” differs from Sam Mendes’s 2022 rendition featuring a glass-box set, slicker costuming and video projection, and moody solo piano.

From left: René Thornton Jr., Mark Nelson and Edward Gero in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "The Lehman Trilogy" (Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography)

Arbus’s comparatively natural staging adds warmth and familiarity, but perhaps could have benefited from something like a phone ringing portentously as at the end of Mendes’s version, signaling the 2008 mortgage market crash and bookending the Lehman Brothers story, which here resolves more vaguely.

 

But the story comes across beautifully otherwise, and that’s what you’re here for – one family’s compelling saga conveying the American story of immigrant spirit, ingenuity and generational success, crumbling under the weight of its own excess. Perhaps a fitting reminder today that “greatness” without soul is like a house of cards, easily collapsible.

 

“The Lehman Trilogy” continues at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, D.C., through March 30. For tickets and information, call the box office at (202) 547-1122 or visit Shakespearetheatre.org. Run time is 3 hours and 35 minutes, including two 15-minute intermissions.

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