Setting the bar of theatrical excellence in a history-making moment for Utah theater: Pioneer Theatre Company christens Meldrum Theatre with The Lehman Trilogy, powered by virtuosic acting

When the history of 21st century theater in Utah is written, it will be noted that actor Jeff Talbott, in the role of Henry Lehman, spoke the first words in performance on the thrust stage of the new Meldrum Theatre at The University of Utah.

It also will be noted that Talbott, along with actors William Connell and Seth Andrew Bridges set a virtuosic bar of theatrical excellence for the christening of the new theater, which, in going forward, many actors who will appear on that stage will strive to emulate. The Pioneer Theatre Company’s (PTC) Utah premiere production of The Lehman Trilogy, directed by Karen Azenberg, offers a masterpiece of acting in the chamber theater setting. It is impossible to imagine that an opening performance in a new venue could have proceeded any better than this PTC production. The run continues through April 13.

Presented in three 50-minute parts, along with two intermissions, the play covers 163 years of history. Starting in 1844, three brothers from Rimpar, Germany, arrive, one by one, in Montgomery, Alabama. By 1850, all three brothers — Henry, Emanuel and Mayer Lehman — were reunited. From the German Jewish immigrant brothers’ humble beginnings in the Deep South, where they ran a rural store in the midst of the era of slavery, to their ingenious reinvention as middlemen, which catapulted them to enormous wealth, the play traverses every major period of U.S. history since the 1840s. It ends when the financial film that bore their name went bankrupt in 2008, nearly 40 years after the last direct family descendant to lead the business died.

Seth Andrew Bridges, William Connell, Jeff Talbott. The Lehman Trilogy, Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo Credit: BW Productions.

In key respects, staging The Lehman Trilogy turned out to be a wise decision for PTC to showcase the new theater’s intimate performance potential, as discussed in a preview at The Utah Review. The play, originally written in Italian by Stefano Massini, premiered in France 11 years ago. The original 200-page script, which reads like an epic poem with no directions indicated as to which characters should speak the lines, was eventually pared down by Ben Power in its English version.    

Taken from a school study guide presented by PTC, which is intended for classroom use, Massini addressed in part why he was drawn to the story of the Lehman brothers. “I met the theater for the first time in my life not through the Italian language, but in dialect — Hebraico Fiorentino — in the synagogue basement,” Massini said. “For me, the Jewish world, Jewish culture, Jewish literature — with [Isaac Bashevis] Singer, Kafka — was the language of theater, of invention. That is the reason my books are so full of Jewish culture.”

Jeff Talbott, The Lehman Trilogy, Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo Credit: BW Productions.

Power, who later would adapt the play at the request of director Sam Mendes, was intrigued by Massini’s formative background. Massini was raised as Roman Catholic but when his father saved  a Jewish worker in a factory accident, the man was so grateful that he tagged the elder Massini as an honorary Jew and, and as an act of gratitude, agreed to enroll the younger Massini in a synagogue school. Massini was apparently an unruly boy and his father believed that the synagogue’s afternoon education program would provide the discipline he needed.

Power explained, “Massini had this very close knowledge of Judaism, but he was also an outsider; he was deeply in it but not in it,” He added. “The play deals not only with the Lehmans’ Judaism, but also with their status as outsiders. And as a non-Jew, non-American telling this story, I also felt like an outsider.”

Indeed, this sentiment is where the script’s strengths emerge and the three actors extract them magnificently in their performances. The play exists almost entirely in third person narration, not in conventional dialogue format. In covering a total of 50 character roles, Talbott, Connell and Bridges superbly take on the immense task of speaking not only of a specific character’s behavior, thoughts and actions but also providing all of the necessary setting and backstory. This is paralleled by the wisely placed bits of music, written and arranged by composer Will Van Dyke.

William Connell, The Lehman Trilogy, Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo Credit: BW Productions.

Obviously, compacting more than 160 years of history into three hours means the rapid pace will be riveting to ensure the audience’s attention does not wane. Although, going any slower would also risk  realizing some critical gaps in the historical timeline, especially in the first part, which should not have been overlooked in the script (more about that later).

The first part covers the shortest period of the three — barely a quarter of a century, from 1844 to just after the Civil War. Henry Lehman (played by Talbott) arrives and opens his business in antebellum Alabama. Within the next half dozen years, Emanuel (Connell) and Mayer (Bridges) arrive and the business thrives and expands. Henry died in 1855 so it was left to his two brothers to be the stewards of the enterprise. 

There is just one brief acknowledgment of slavery in this section. Emanuel tells Henry, “I don’t want to sell buckets and spades to slaves.” Henry says, “We sell to whoever will buy. Here in America, everything changes.” Unfortunately, slaves did not have the right nor power to engage in the sort of capitalism that Henry assumed might emancipate them.

Seth Andrew Bridges, The Lehman Trilogy, Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo Credit: BW Productions.

The play does not address how the brothers profited from slavery, nor how antisemitism affected the Lehmans. There were 25,000 Jews who were living in the U.S. South during that period, as Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna has documented. Referencing a discussion he had with Mendes about adapting the script in the middle of the last decade, Power said, “The Black Lives Matter movement made me think a lot more about how we were representing the full story of America in the early part of the play, The job we had to get right was landing the reality of the cotton industry and the relationship between that and the Lehman brothers.” 

However, as an accompanying sidebar to this review indicates, the omission of direct references to slavery in the play, the preeminent issue of the time, is profoundly problematic. As one of art’s greatest virtues is enlightenment even in its creative license when referencing actual historical figures and events, the act of sidestepping areas fraught with cognitive dissonance deserves rigorous scrutiny. Otherwise, the discourse is mired in the territory of mythologized abstractions, without vigorously questioning the postulations about capitalism’s supposed virtues that some would have believed could lead to economic empowerment and freedom. 

The second and third parts of the play move at lightning speed and provide the most impressive acting moments of the evening, notably in the performances of the characters representing the subsequent generation of Lehmans. These two parts whisk through the great age of industrialization, the largest waves of immigration, The Great Depression and the business environment from the end of World War II to the 21st century. Talbott is just as compelling as Philip, who made the firm into a darling of stock market capitalism. Just as stellar is Bridges as Robert, the last Lehman to lead the firm.

Jeff Talbott, The Lehman Trilogy, Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo Credit: BW Productions.

Connell also is superb as Herbert, who left the business and made his mark as a four-term governor of the state of New York, who supported the New Deal, and as a U.S. Senator, who was among the first vocal critics of McCarthyism in the 1950s. Some U.S. passport holders will notice a quote from Herbert Lehman, which he delivered in 1947 before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee. It is inscribed as follows: “It is immigrants who brought this land the skills of their hands and brains, to make of it a beacon of opportunity and hope for all men.” That essence seems perhaps to have resonated both with Massini and Power.

The three actors capture the best elements of The Lehman Trilogy: immigrants in an entirely unfamiliar land, who are resilient in the challenge of assimilating while still preserving the core characteristics of their religious identity as realistically as they can. But the fading of those traditions also is symbolized, such as the progressive shortening of the mourning ritual, when each brother dies. There is a thread of cultural bereavement which flows from one part to another in the play. This element is clear, even as the pace quickens through the second and third parts of the play.

In sum, the remarkable range of acting gifts by Talbott, Connell and Bridges is always on display. Unconditionally, this is a memorable production that will become a hallmark in the contemporary history of Utah theater. It was about as perfect as one could expect for the opening of a marvelous new theatrical venue.

The production continues through April 13. For tickets and more information, see the Pioneer Theatre Company website

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