Even when histories are epic in length, like Gibbons’ Decline and Fall or Churchill’s Second World War, what we read at a seemingly slogging pace is a severe abridgement of what actually happened. Onstage, we move so much more swiftly in so-called histories as dramatists bring familiar and obscure people back to life, give them lively dialogue, and select even more narrowly among many actions, events and consequences.
So the effect of The Lehman Trilogy, at the Arts Factory through Nov. 18 for a brilliant Three Bone Theatre production directed by David Winitsky, will likely be a revelation to anyone who might dread spending over three hours with a family of Jewish merchants, traders, and bankers.
The chronicle stretches more than three generations and 160 years, from 1844 to 2008. Our ultimate landing site is nearly four decades after the last Lehman stood at the helm of Lehman Brothers, when the mighty financial services behemoth collapsed into bankruptcy, triggering a worldwide market meltdown.
Played by just three actors, including a woman for the first time, The Lehman Trilogy moves like greased lightning. Even after reading and enjoying the entire script, I was shocked by how swiftly it moved onstage and how well it played.
Maybe we’ve been conditioned by the historical miniseries on HBO, Netflix, Prime, and Hulu that parade a life story or a notable family history over weekly episodes that span months and spill over into seasons. Thanks to MSNBC, CNN, C-Span, Fox News, and Donald Trump, we also share a visceral understanding of how excruciatingly slowly real history actually moves.
The 2024 election seems ages away because we are inching toward it with so much nuance and detail, amid echo chambers of daily polling and social media blather. And the sleek three-hour edition of The Lehman Trilogy now at West Trade Street, adapted by translator Ben Powers, is itself an abridgement of the original Stefano Massini script that premiered eight years ago in Milan, Italy — clocking in at a full five hours.
What might a sloppier, more comprehensive Lehman Trilogy include with two more hours? On the positive side of the ledger, we might hear more about Gov. Herbert Lehman and his key role in implementing the New Deal with FDR, or the considerable philanthropic exploits of the Lehman family, especially Robert, the last of the Wall Street line.
On the negative — or infamous — side of the Lehman account sheet, Massini’s play delves into how the family cornered the Southern cotton trade before the Civil War, though it almost completely glosses over how their great fortune was built on the exploitation of African American slave labor.
Steering clear of ethics, politics, racism and philanthropy, Massini maintains a lean laser focus on how, stage by stage, the Lehmans built their fortunes, keeping their eyes open, seizing opportunities, rolling with the punches, and changing with the times. Along the way, there are literal business signposts marking the new directions and expansions of the Lehman Brothers’ store in Montgomery, Alabama, and later at their offices and various corporate HQs in New York.
Condensed into the space of three hours, these changes come at us so quickly that wet paint on their newest sign would never get a chance to dry before a newer one must be freshly lettered. Signage updates are one of the few pauses or detours that slow the onrush of time and good fortune that implacably moves the Lehmans and their Lehman Brothers trademark to the heart of the global economy and its cyclical collapses.
Occasionally, there are comedic detours into courtships by the Lehman men, each one unique and bizarre until the script is finally flipped when we reach Robert or “Bobby,” whose seduction by Ruth Lamar begins elegantly at an unnamed racetrack where his horse has just won.
More frequently, the naked moneymaking is paused, flavored, or otherwise cloaked with Jewish holidays and observances, Jewish wisdom, Jewish expressions, or references to Talmud and the Old Testament: Shabbat, Shiva, Chanukah, Sukkot, a housewarming mezuzah, a Reform-style bar mitzvah, Noah and the flood, the Ten Plagues, the Golden Calf, and the ultimate blueprint for insane capitalism, the Tower of Babel.
While the steadily increasing wealth of the Lehmans cannot help but uphold negative tropes about Jewish character, Massini’s explicit evocations of Jewish culture and tradition are a telling countercurrent. Especially in the manner that succeeding generations observe the Shiva ritual in mourning the deaths of their patriarchs, Massini shows us how the Lehmans are drifting away from the core traditions and values of their religion.
Over the course of the Trilogy, it gradually becomes clearer that the Lehmans’ business is based on a different kind of belief. So much of what we hear is exposition or monologue aimed directly at the audience that my chief worry on opening night, entering the Arts Factory, was how well this dialogue-starved script would play.
Ironically, all my worries evaporated before there was even a chance for true dialogue to happen.
Arriving in America with a single suitcase at the Port of New York at 7:25 a.m. on Sept. 11, 1844, Kevin Shimko as Henry Lehman — nee Hayim Lehmann — not only speaks to us all, he seems to freshly inhabit every word. He catalogues the changes that have come over him during the ocean voyage and re-enacts them — all the skills he has picked up, the temperaments of nationalities he has encountered — so that America is no longer a pure dream when he arrives but an explosion of the wonders and variety he has already experienced enroute.
Bursting with vim, Henry is both sides of the dialogue with the port official that gives him his new name entering the New World. Henry sees America as a magical music box, and Shimko strikes us immediately as hellbent on personifying the dazzling kaleidoscope he discovers. It’s supercharged, beyond charming or engaging.
Wary and cynical, Becca Worthington as Emanuel Lehman is a friendly adversary for his brother — or in Massini’s terms, the arm that must instructed and convinced to take action by the head. That’s Henry.
Keeping the peace between them is the mission of Scott Tynes-Miller as Mayer, the youngest Lehman and the last to arrive in Montgomery. Meek and obliging at first, Mayer eventually proves to be capable of ideas as pioneering as Henry’s and to have skills that are no less impressive than Emanuel’s.
On a couple of occasions, Mayer is a bit of a miracle, far transcending his brothers’ labeling of him as a potato. Tynes-Miller’s face lights up in an utterly spontaneous, winsome and irresistible smile on those special occasions.
Worthington and Tynes-Miller have impressed us many times before, in Three Bone productions and beyond, so it wasn’t a complete shock to see Worthington assume the full intellectual and moral authority of young Herbert Lehman as he intimidates his own rabbi by questioning the Ten Plagues.
Nor will we marvel at Tynes-Miller’s ability to discard the meek winsomeness of Mayer to assume, a generation later, the cocksure sovereignty of plutocrat Philip Lehman. He’s done it before, and he does it with ease.
The revelations came from Shimko and Winitsky. Since his 2017 local debut in an ensemble piece, Eat the Runt, at the old Charlotte Art League location on Camden Road, Shimko has been off our radar. He has lurked in the cast of an Actor’s Theatre production that was short-circuited by COVID and the company’s demise — and in the ensemble of a subsequent Children’s Theatre production.
Co-founder and artistic director of Comedy Arts Theater of Charlotte on South Boulevard, Shimko re-emerged briefly in theatre circles earlier this year when he directed the first theatrical event at CATCh, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All, and served as both emcee and the title nun’s monkish supplicant.
If you haven’t seen Shimko toiling in improv comedy at his club, his Henry Lehman and a slew of other characters old and young — of both genders — will be an ample, eye-opening intro.
Winitsky’s work has been on view at Shalom Park, where he brought the Charlotte chapter of the nationwide Jewish Plays Project for a few exciting years, and at ImaginOn, where he twice directed the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production of Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, during and after the pandemic lockdown.
So a play that has been accused of antisemitism is in perfect hands here, but the jaw-dropping surprise is Winitsky’s attention to detail, his infusion of fresh life into so many moments; steering his actors through the often-lyrical text, rolling furniture back and forth across the black box stage, reconfiguring the space between acts, and even doubling down on audience involvement.
Sure, Shimko’s Hebrew pronunciation is still a work in progress, and some projections up on the Arts Factory walls might have let us in on Massini’s nifty chapter titles and helped us keep better track of the years. But Winitsky’s approach, bringing us Massini’s sprawling script as if it were intended for a teeny off-Off-Broadway space, disdains such high-tech luxuries.
Anitra Tripathi’s set design is chiefly an endless clockface painted on the floor that spirals backwards from the perimeter in ever-smaller Roman numerals toward an off-centerstage beginning. The only Arabic numerals along the way are key years in the journey where each of the three Trilogy “books” starts out.
Above us, echoing the clockface below, clocks galore are hung from everywhere, more like an antique shop than a music box. But with three bankers scurrying around before us for three hours in three-piece suits, it’s a perfect look.
Even in a little back box, The Lehman Trilogy feels big. Through war and peace, boom and bust, trains, planes, movies, computers, and whatever derivatives are, this Jewish story cumulatively becomes a quintessential American story. It’s the thrill, the struggle, and the hard-won triumph of immigration — repurposed into an ups-and-downs rollercoaster ride, as only Americans can do.
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