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  • Angela Allyn

Sweeping Story at Timeline

If you have ever been to a show at Timeline Theatre, you know that reading the lobby display and other materials (here a literal little book called The Backstory) will be a critical part of your immersion into the time and truth of the experience. Timeline shows are significantly enriched by context. This is intelligent art. This company's commitment to dramaturgy is unparalleled and deepens the experience. For decades, this Northside company has looked at contemporary issues through the lens of history, a kind of artistic precursor to Heather Cox Richardson’s blog where history comes alive and informs the present through its intimate connections and ramifications. The current collaboration with Broadway in Chicago to bring The Lehman Trilogy to Michigan Avenue allows the show to have a beautiful relevance it could not have if we were simply getting a touring production. This fresh all Chicago mounting of the show is a not to be missed event.

Timeline and Broadway in Chicago have worked together twice before and that relationship truly blossoms with this production. Artistic director PJ Powers noted that Timeline had been wanting the rights, and as soon as they became available he approached Broadway in Chicago about offering it at the intimate Broadway Playhouse. The show fits perfectly in the space, with Collette Pollard’s ingenious set, consisting of bank boxes soon to be discarded and mismatched desks, conference tables and office chairs and the Lehman Brothers sign taken down, all of which visually foreshadows the end of this epic journey. Desks become piers, ship decks, couches, cotton bales, carriages. Stairs indicate skyscrapers. Boxes become seats.

The Lehman Trilogy is at once a beautiful story of generations of a family, a cautionary tale, an indictment of capitalism and an immigrant’s saga. Three Jewish brothers came to America before the Civil War, and as scrappy smart immigrants often do,they work their way up to incredible wealth and power through at least 3 generations. The empire they build collapses ignominiously in 2008 in the debt credit swap bubble, long after the last of the Lehman’s were no longer in control of the firm. It may be noted that their fortunes, like most of America’s vast wealth, was built atop the rotten foundation of slavery, but this realization is lightly touched on. Also underlined, but gently, is the through line of American Jewish assimilation. The rituals of faith become fainter and fainter as the generations accumulate.

Despite the 3 hour and 20 minute running time the show is fast paced, moving and funny: you have to pay attention as the brothers wheel and deal, die too soon, marry, have children, morph the business, straddle the North and the South, survive the death and destruction of the Civil War and the Depression and move away from commodities and into just growing money. These men understood economics in a way many of us never will, but they also saw opportunities and took advantage of them. The play is written from an outsider's perspective: Italian Stefano Massini looked at this sprawling history and poetically carved it into something absolutely compelling: the kind of theater that has you calling people on the way home, exhorting them to buy tickets. Don’t miss this show, and bring friends: there are so many layers to discuss after seeing this production.

Co-directors Nick Bowling and Vanessa Stalling have created a dream team: Mitchell Fain, Anish Jethmalani and Joey Slotnick play all the generations of Lehman’s, their children, their spouses, their board members and successors with delicious precision, creating a cast of hundreds with immense talent. This massive piece rests upon their journey through over 150 years of American history.

It is not an easy play but it is an exceptionally good one, and it dramatizes economic history in a way that every participant in capitalism can comprehend. It is also an important piece as a theatrical business model that is critical to note at this juncture: by combining forces two Chicago institutions become greater together than apart. The economies of the theater world are shifting just as the economies of a young nation evolved to allow some fortunate few to create investment banking. Perhaps this model of cooperation among theater entities can nurture growth and stabilization in the live performance space. By bringing together the unique assets of Timeline and Broadway in Chicago, the end product is brilliant. Chicago theater's future is bright if we can keep looking at history in this fresh and relevant way.

The Lehman Trilogy is playing, in an already extended run,Tuesdays through Sundays through November 26, 2023 at the Broadway Playhouse in Water Tower Place. For tickets and information go to

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