in the fall of 2019 extraordinary partnership It was formed between Chicago’s Broadway, the city’s premier presenter of touring theater, and the TimeLine Theatre, a medium-sized nonprofit that specializes in plays inspired by history. JT Rogers’ drama “Olso,” about the Clinton-era peace talks between the state of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, won the 2017 Tony Award for best play. Instead of the national tour that might follow such an award, Chicago audiences got an all-out experience. new production It was staged by TimeLine and presented by Broadway at Broadway Playhouse, Chicago’s Magnificent Mile venue.
Four years later, two companies we are coming together again For the Chicago premiere of the 2022 Tony Award winner for best play, “Lehman Trilogy.” Written by Italian playwright Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, this epic drama spans more than 160 years, beginning with the emigration of three Jewish brothers from Bavaria in the 1840s and the rapid rise and devastating collapse of the firm they founded, Lehman Brothers. , in 2008. Meanwhile, there is much to be said about capitalism, the immigrant experience, and the American Dream.
Following the play’s premiere in France and Italy, an English adaptation of Power opened at London’s National Theater in 2018, under the direction of Sam Mendes. This production made its North American debut at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in 2019 and had several previews on Broadway in March 2020, just before the pandemic shutdowns. It later returned to both London and Broadway after theaters reopened.
TimeLine associate artistic director Nick Bowling, who also directed “Oslo,” is directing the Chicago premiere of “The Lehman Trilogy” with Vanessa Stalling. The cast includes three veteran Chicago actors: Mitchell Fain, known for his eight-year run of David Sedaris’ “The Santaland Diaries” at Theater Wit; TimeLine company member Anish Jethmalani, who was nominated for a Jeff Award for “Oslo,” and longtime Lookingglass Theater troupe member Joey Slotnick. Each actor portrays one of the original brothers who founded the company and up to 20 other roles, including subsequent generations of Lehmans and supporting characters.
Despite its global implications, the “Lehman Trilogy” is largely the story of one family and its experience coming to America in search of a better life. The production includes two dramaturgs (Carol Ann Tan and DeRon Williams) and advisor Pamela Nadell, who directs the Jewish Studies program at American University. In an interview, the actors noted how much they learned about Jewish immigration in the mid-19th century, a very different period from the better-known period when new arrivals from Ellis Island passed through in the early 20th century.
“We learned about the circumstances and how it is currently being persecuted by the Jewish people in Germany, and why a Jew like Henry Lehman left everything he knew and his family to a place where he knew no one. He was alone to try to do better,” said the first man on the journey. Fain, who plays the brother. “And as with many immigrant families, it’s interesting to watch the religious as opposed to the cultural part of things perhaps become more Americanized over the generations.”
Jethmalani added: “I also think that at the heart of the show is this fundamental question of the cost of capitalism, and what are you giving up in terms of your own personal identity to achieve that goal? I think every person who comes to this country or grows up in this country will somehow recognize a piece of it; how we look at materialism, “How do we look at the things we buy, how do we look after them? Look at where we work; all of this comes at a cost.”
According to the actors and directors, TimeLine will offer a distinctly American perspective on this story. “This is more of a local Chicago effort,” Jethmalani said. “Those who watch the production in London or New York will come away with something new.”
Some critics accused the play’s script and Mendes’ staging of overlooking Lehman Brothers’ past ties to the slave trade, which the company publicly acknowledged in 2003. The TimeLine team feels a special responsibility to deal with this legacy—not just the history of the slave trade. Slavery in antebellum Alabama, where the Lehmans opened their first store, as well as its lasting impact on capitalism in the United States.
“As Americans, we have to take on this,” Bowling said. “A big part of the success of American capitalism is due to slavery, frankly, because of the work that was put on enslaved people, and that happened for hundreds of years. Productions out there are aware of that, and while they’re involved in this game, we felt it should focus on the conversation about the game.”
Although the script remains unchanged, the directors noted that TimeLine is well equipped to add context to this story. In each of its productions, the theater makes connections between history and current social and political issues through lobbying shows, program notes and dramaturgy. “Part of experiencing a TimeLine show is that you have access to a lot more information that theater can curate and provide,” Stalling said.
Fain also addressed another criticism of the British production: the idea that the play reinforces anti-Jewish tropes. He said it was a flawed comment: “There is something I find problematic in not accepting that this game is only about this family.”
“Jews, banking and money are unfortunately intertwined in the discourse, but it is incredibly important to remember that while the Lehman brothers were making all these choices, so were the Rockefellers and Carnegies,” Fain said. “So even though it’s a play about this family, this idea of capitalism and how it can corrupt — how it’s seen as a positive thing at one point and then becomes the American religion — it’s not just about the Jewish people. It’s about America.”
Stalling hopes that telling this comprehensive epic about capitalism from a family’s candid perspective will help viewers reflect on their own lives. “There’s a chance to look back over 100 years to the choices that affect us now,” he said.
“You come to the movies to be transported,” Slotnick said. “I hope this brings people back to the theater to see an incredible story told with just a few furniture, a few actors, some light and some music on stage where everyone shares this experience together. The more we can do this and share and come to this place to learn, be moved and grow. “The better it will be.”
“Lehman Trilogy” runs Sept. 19 through Oct. 29 at Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.; tickets are between $30-90 broadwayinchicago.com
Emily McClanathan is a freelance critic.