Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY at Shakespeare Theatre Company

The powerful and epic production runs through March 30

By: Mar. 01, 2024
Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY at Shakespeare Theatre Company
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Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY at Shakespeare Theatre Company
René Thornton Jr., Mark Nelson and Edward Gero in The Lehman Trilogy. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The Lehman Trilogy, directed by Arin Arbus at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, is an extraordinary feat of storytelling. It is simultaneously epic and spare. With just three actors it unfolds the captivating and intimate story of one immigrant family that evolves its company, navigates pious lives, innovates new ways of doing business, and ultimately unravels over time into instability and a crushing financial crisis.

It must be said upfront that this a three-and-a-half-hour experience. That’s a lot, even for the most ardent theater fan. But it’s not gratuitous or indulgent padding that accounts for the time—every moment is essential and compelling as we cover more than a century and a half. Plan ahead, caffeinate accordingly and prepare to be wowed. The production runs through March 30.

The audience is in sure and capable hands with the compact cast of three. Edward Gero, veteran of 80 productions with STC and winner of four Helen Hayes Awards, is Henry Lehman and many others. Mark Nelson, whose credits include Broadway productions of Angels in America and A Few Good Men, is Mayer Lehman and more. René Thornton Jr., who has worked with the Oregon and Utah Shakespeare Festivals and 118 productions at the American Shakespeare Center, is Emanuel Lehman and others. These accomplished actors move us through the poetry and pauses, the humor and hubris the text requires. They are not stuffy or pretentious—they are sincere and human, relatable and wonderful. They mine the text for moments that are light or dark. They might coo like a baby, bat their eyelashes behind a fan or ruthlessly bar a family member from taking a seat on the board.

Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY at Shakespeare Theatre Company
René Thornton Jr., Mark Nelson, and Edward Gero

Together Gero, Nelson and Thornton are the Lehman brothers—immigrants building an American dream that arcs over generations from innovation and achievement to a crumbling and chaotic nightmare. The trio cover 160 years of family struggles, reflections, achievements, and missteps that range from humility and religious devotion to excess and greed through one company’s ability to shape our financial markets.

As the winner of the 2022 Tony Award for Best Play, The Lehman Trilogy could have been placed in the season of any number of DC-area theaters (and likely will appear on stages throughout the DMV in years to come). But, as a Shakespeare Theatre Company production we focus on the epic scale, the poetry and precision of the text, the enduring challenges and historic scope of the story. In the skilled hands of playwright Stefano Massini with adaptation by Ben Power, the tale of this family unfolds like a fable, but the real-life actions of these people reflect the evolution of capitalism and finance. The company the three Lehman brothers founded has had significant repercussions for more than a century.

Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY at Shakespeare Theatre Company
Mark Nelson, Edward Gero, and René Thornton Jr.

Director Arin Arbus, who directed the acclaimed 2022 Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Merchant of Venice and returns to direct this Lehman Trilogy spoke to the fall of Lehman Brothers: “I was in NYC in 2008 during the financial crisis. And I remember the earth-shaking moment when I learned that the Lehman Corporation had collapsed. I remember a kind of suspension in the air during which our whole financial system was on the brink. People were asking—will it all come tumbling down? And of course, that’s when the play begins.”

In Arbus’s production, lights come up on a sole figure sweeping up the mountains of shredded documents forming the centerpiece of Marsha Ginsberg’s scenic design. While we will also see sets for Alabama cotton plantations and early 20th century offices, the mountainous shredded final remnants of the collapse of the Lehman empire remain on stage as a constant reminder of what is to come. Hannah Wasileski’s projections are used to extraordinary effect—they are evocative and effectively center us in history. Yi Zhao’s lighting is an important component of the staging.

Michael Costagliola’s sound design and composition underscore the spoken word and heighten the drama and depth of the actors’ spoken dialogue.

Costumes by Anita Yavich are centered on suits and sweaters of the principal actors. Yet the clothes are multi-functional as the actors evolve over time and represent multiple characters. Lorenzo Pisoni directs the physical movement. Pamela S. Nadell is the Jewish Studies Consultant and Dr. Soyica Colbert is the Historical Consultant. Lisa Beley is the voice and dialect coach.

This team moves us from a New York dockside in 1844 as a young Bavarian immigrant dreams of a new life. His two brothers soon join him, and they launch a small store in Alabama. Then there’s a cotton brokerage firm. Next they help establish the Cotton Exchange. One hundred and sixty-three years later they are dealing in a far more ephemeral business of credit default swaps. Eventually the corporation is at the center of the 2007 mortgage and the 2008 banking crises. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in 2008 for more than $600 billion in debts.

Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY at Shakespeare Theatre Company
René Thornton Jr., Mark Nelson, and Edward Gero

Former Citigroup CEO Chuck Prince said in 2007: "When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance. We're still dancing." One of the last images we see of the Lehman principles is their manic dancing.

While this is a modern and familiar story, it has the epic scale of a Shakespearean history or a modern-day Greek tragedy. With the constant presence of the ghosts of Henry, Emanuel and Mayer Lehman it pulls from magical realism.

But at its heart The Lehman Trilogy is a family drama—the story of brothers and sons, neighbors and spouses. As we move away from these core relationships and the story becomes more impersonal the dynastic drama shows us the scary and shifting definition of the American dream.

With its superb cast, powerful direction and carefully curated production elements, the Shakespeare Theatre Company brings us an epic, heartfelt, cautionary tale for our time. It is a unique and impressive theatrical experience that shouldn’t be missed.

Running Time: 3 hours and 35 minutes with two 15-minute intermissions.

The Lehman Trilogy by Stefano Massini runs through Saturday, March 30, 2024. The Lehman Trilogy is produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20004. For tickets and schedule, accessible performance information, special events, attendance policies and further information visit the company's website.

Photos by by Teresa Castracane Photography. 

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