Wednesday night, I went to see the St. Louis Rep’s production of “The Lehman Trilogy,” which won five awards at the 2022 Tonys, including Best Play.
It tells the history of the three Lehman brothers, who arrived as immigrants from Germany in the mid-19th century and headed for Montgomery, Alabama, where they opened a store selling suits and fabrics. Their business changed many times and had to overcome substantial hurdles, from the Civil War to the Depression to two World Wars. Yet the brothers — and their offspring — found a way to thrive and morph their company into one of the most powerful investment firms in the world. Until it collapsed during the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, of course.
There are about four dozen roles in the production, all performed by three actors — Scott Wentworth, Joshua David Robinson, and Firdous Bama — who skillfully play both male and female characters, adults and children, all without changing costumes. They are joined, from time to time, by musician Joe Larocca, who unobtrusively underscores the action on saxophone, flute, and other instruments.
The set, designed by Sara Brown, is minimalist, too, consisting of big wooden crates and a few tables the actors move around as the scenes and settings change. It’s all supplemented by projections, intriguing lighting changes, and other visual effects. Directed by Carey Perloff, the whole thing is mesmerizing, and I found myself drawn into the world the Lehmans lived in, thanks to tour de force performances by the cast.
I was a bit disappointed that “The Lehman Trilogy” downplays the fact that the brothers’ earliest success was due to the field work of enslaved Black people who picked the cotton which the Lehmans bought and then sold to factories in Chicago and elsewhere. It doesn’t even mention that the brothers owned slaves for two decades.
At a time of rising anti-Semitism, it’s impossible to ignore another troubling aspect of “The Lehman Trilogy” — its reinforcement of harmful stereotypes of Jews as the controllers of money and their willingness to do anything to accrue more. It portrays the Lehmans as the original middlemen, though they were far from the first to manufacture nothing, but profit from the work of others.
The Rep is aware of these concerns, and includes in the program this note from the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis:
The Lehman Brothers story is one of national tragedy and personal failing, but also exists in a much larger historical context.
For centuries, the Jewish community has been subject to the persistent stereotype that they are greedy or avaricious, willing to make themselves rich by any means. These stereotypes and tropes often contribute to baseless accusations of Jewish control over world financial systems, as well as proclivities to cheat others out of their money.
While the events in this play dramatically portray many of the events in the arc of the Lehman family and the nation, the retelling of their story can evoke these ancient, yet still prevalent, stereotypes about Jewish people and the Jewish community. We hope you will be able to enjoy this show with an open mind, and consider not only the story it portrays, but also the ongoing real world consequences that these stereotypes exacerbate in Jewish communities around the world today.
Still, I found myself rooting for the Lehmans, viewing them not as Jews or Germans, but as Americans who understood the very core of capitalism and how to exploit opportunities to build wealth. In the end, when there were no Lehmans left at the firm named after them, the whole thing crumpled under the greedy weight of too-risky financial moves, leaving nothing but ashes and a ruined legacy.
The night I was there, it was sad to see only about 20% of the Rep’s theater filled for such a brilliant production. I’m sure the actors felt the same way looking out at all those empty seats. Perhaps people are staying away because “The Lehman Trilogy” runs three and a half hours with two intermissions (though it never feels long or boring). Maybe they feel disinterested in the tale of a family building a financial fortune.
Whatever the reason, they’re missing one of the better theater experiences to grace a stage in St. Louis in a long time. The Rep’s production will run through September 24th.