Review of The Lehman Trilogy at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

    The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is at its best in The Lehman Trilogy. On opening night, I watched the fascinating play by Stefano Massini with rapt attention from start to finish.

    Presented at The Rep in an adaptation by Ben Power, The Lehman Trilogy is a chronical of Lehman Brothers, the one-time global financial powerhouse, and the family that guided the company through most of its history. The script tells the story with great efficiency by interweaving dialogue with narration. Sometimes, the actors speak to one other in character; sometimes, they speak to the audience as storytellers.

    The first member of the family to come to America was Heyum Lehmann, who emigrated from Bavaria in 1844. A port official misunderstood the name, and the new immigrant became Henry Lehman. He settled in Montgomery, Alabama, and opened a dry goods store. Henry was followed by his younger brother, Emanuel, in 1847 and by his youngest brother, Mayer, in 1850.

    At The Rep, Scott Wentworth, Joshua David Robinson, and Firdous Bamji play all the speaking parts. Wentworth starts out as Henry, Robinson as Emanuel, and Bamji as Mayer. When another character is needed, one of the three actors steps into the role. They all wear the same costumes throughout the play—suits with black frock coats. Cotton plants are embroidered into the coats’ backs. These costumes by by Dede Ayite are a continual reminder of the company’s origin.

    The three performers are in complete command of the material. Their range and versatility are astonishing as they continually switch between narration and dialogue and from one character to another. When the brothers are courting, the portrayals of the women being pursued are delightful.

    Act One delineates the steps by which the Lehmans transformed themselves from dealers in cotton goods to dealers in raw cotton to bankers. In Act Two, the brothers have moved their base of operations to New York City. Emanuel’s son Philip (Wentworth), Mayer’s son Herbert (Robinson), and Philip’s son, Robert (Bamji) enter the story. The bank continues to grow until the stock market crash of 1929.

    Act Three begins with Robert’s efforts to save the bank after the crash. After Robert’s death in 1969, no member of the family was involved in running the company. Up to this point, the reasons for the company’s growth were easy to understand. Under nonfamily leadership, the nature of the business grows increasingly opaque until its demise at the start of the 2008 financial crisis.

    Carey Perloff’s direction moves the action forward with ingenuity and clarity and exploits the flexibility of Sara Brown’s evocative scenic design. Its main components are wooden crates. In the third act, Robert Wierzel’s lighting gives the rectangular shapes a striking, high-tech look. The specificity of individual scenes is greatly enhanced by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s projections, Charles Coes and Mark Bennett’s sound, and Bennett’s musical compositions. The accomplished onstage musician is Joe LaRocca.

    If you are looking for a reason to come back to The Rep, this show is it.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Jon Gitchoff
    From the left, Joshua David Robinson, Scott Wentworth, and Firdous Bamji in
    The Lehman Trilogy.