Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Lehman Trilogy
American Conservatory Theater

Aaron Krohn, John Heffernan,
and Howard W. Overshown

Photo by Kevin Berne
When Heyum Lehmann emigrated from Bavaria in 1844, he "left with an idea of America in his head." Like so many immigrants, Heyum (who would take on the name Henry Lehman upon his arrival) came seeking the opportunities this new country, just over 50 years old at the time, could provide. Henry ends up in Montgomery, Alabama, where he opens a dry goods shop: "It might be small, but it's his." But after his brothers Emanuel and Meyer make the long sea crossing to join him, the trio transition the business into selling raw cotton. It's a fascinating beginning to a story, which–despite the fact we all know how it ends–goes from one high to the next, making the brothers millionaires (at a time when a million dollars bought quite a bit more than a studio condo in San Francisco)–at least until it all comes crashing down in 2008.

The Lehman Trilogy, which opened this week at American Conservatory Theater's Toni Rembe Theater (in a co-production with the National Theatre and Neal Street Productions) is a masterful telling of the saga of a family business that becomes a financial empire brought low by hubris and greed.

One might think that a three-and-a-half hour play (including two 15-minute intermissions) about cotton brokers who become investment bankers would be as dry as the Sahara. But thanks to Stefano Massini's text (adapted by Ben Power from a literal translation by Mirella Cheeseman) and Sam Mendes' brilliant direction, the story rockets along, taking us deep inside the decision-making process of the three brothers (and their progeny), each with a different role to play in the growth of the business. Henry (John Heffernan), the eldest, is the head, the brains of the operation. Emanuel (Howard W. Overshown) is the arms, the tough-minded negotiator and man of action, while youngest brother Meyer (Aaron Krohn) is called "potato," because he didn't have even a wisp of a beard until later in life. This moniker becomes a recurring trope in the play; e.g., when Meyer presents an idea to ensure higher profits (proving he is more than a potato), he deadpans that he came up with it using "the ingenious clarity of a vegetable."

The action–despite most of it taking place in the 19th and early 20th centuries–takes place in an ultra-modern set (by designer Es Devlin) that is a large glass enclosure, simulating a suite of offices in a glass skyscraper. Projections (by Luke Halls) help establish themes and moods, from New York skylines (from several different eras of the city) to vast open seas to the crackling red flames of a fire to masses of text and numbers. The glass box (accented by a conference table and several dozen banker's boxes) rotates on a turntable, facilitating transitions of time and space.

The three cast members play all the roles–not only the three founding brothers, but also their offspring, their wives and children, brokers, traders, employees. They accomplish each of these changes through the simplest of theatrical tricks: a change of voice, a turned-up collar, a subtle gesture, or a change in posture. It's delightful to see Overshown (the most physically imposing of the trio) become a three-year-old simply by pulling his legs to his chest and sucking his thumb, or to watch as Krohn becomes a coquettish debutante, or to see Heffernan transform into a confident divorcée by folding over his lapels, adopting a feminine posture, and raising his chin to stare down his nose.

A key element of the story of the Lehman brothers is how they approached crises. A fire that devastated the plantations around Montgomery turns into an opportunity for the brothers to sell the materials the cotton growers needed to replant their crops and rebuild their lives. After the Civil War, they inveigle the governor of Alabama to give them funds they can then loan out to facilitate reconstruction. After the great crash of 1929 and the depression that followed, Lehman Brothers (now led by Philip Lehman [also Heffernan], the brilliant strategist son of Emanuel) evolved once again, moving into venture capital. But without a Lehman at the helm in 2008, the firm failed to see the signs of a bubble about to burst and went belly up, helping to destabilize the global economy.

The story is told almost entirely in the third person. Characters occasionally speak lines of dialogue, but much of the play is presented almost as though the actors are performing a non-fiction book (the source material is Massini's novel of the same name), with no word left out. It felt to me very much like a production by Word for Word, a San Francisco company that stages short stories with every single word of the story spoken on stage.

At 3.5 hours, The Lehman Trilogy could easily have been a bit of a slog, but instead it moves from moment to moment with a grace and efficiency that makes the time absolutely fly by. If there is a lesson to be learned from the story of the Lehman brothers, it is to seize opportunity no matter where it comes from.

You have a brief opportunity to see one of the most thrilling and engaging plays to hit a San Francisco stage in some time. Don't blow it–get your tickets now, for the show will close after only a three-week run.

The Lehman Trilogy runs through June 23, 2024, at American Conservatory Theater, Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:00pm, Saturdays at 1:00pm and 7:30pm, and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets range from $70-$173. For tickets and information, please visit