American corporate history doesn't often inspire poetry, let alone theater. But such is the feat of the epic historical play The Lehman Trilogy, a London import now making its West Coast premiere at ACT, directed by Oscar- and Tony-winner Sam Mendes.

Originally written in 2013 as an epic poem in Italian, by the novelist and playwright Stefano Massini, The Lehman Trilogy has been translated into 24 languages since its original premiere, and was adapted by British playwright Ben Power for a National Theatre production in London in 2018. It is that production, directed by Mendes, that made its way to the Park Avenue Armory in New York, pre-pandemic, and later to Broadway in 2021 — taking home the Tony Award for Best Play — and now arrives in San Francisco starring a stellar cast of three actors.

It is an American story told through a distinctly European lens, tracing the 164-year history of the Lehman Brothers firm, from its inception as a small, Jewish immigrant-owned retail shop in Birmingham, Alabama, to its becoming a powerhouse investment and financial services firm that collapsed in the 2008 financial crisis. It is a story about how money begets more money, how the world of tangible commodities morphed into a world of amorphous financial "products," and how much of the modern economy and its biggest power players have their roots in the slave economy.

The three actors, all in somber, 19th Century-style black suits with long coats, begin by playing the founding three Lehman brothers, born Lehmann in Rimpar, Germany. The first to arrive, Henry (John Heffernan) — who gets the name from a Port official upon arriving in New York, when that official can't pronounce his real name, Heyum — steps off a boat and, as in many immigrant tales, goes about trying to make his fortune. For reasons that aren't explained, Lehman heads directly to Alabama to open his first dry-goods shop. His brother Emanuel (Howard W. Overshown) is the next to arrive, followed by their younger brother Mayer (Aaron Krohn), and soon they end up pivoting to the business of raw cotton — "inventing," as it were, the concept of being brokers or middlemen between plantation owners and northern factories making cloth.

After the eldest brother, Henry, dies of yellow fever, Emanuel and Mayer end up moving the cotton brokerage to New York City, and soon pivot again to the business of banking. At the urging of Emanuel's son, Philip Lehman (portrayed by Heffernan), the company invests in railroads, and it is Philip, who becomes managing director of Lehman Brothers in 1901, who pushes the company into the stock market for the first time.

And it will be Philip's son Bobby (played by Krohn), a graduate of Yale, who takes over the company upon his father's retirement in 1925, guides Lehman Brothers through the 1929 crash and the Great Depression, and pushes the company into growing industries like airlines and entertainment — putting together startup financing, for instance, to create Paramount Pictures.

It's hard to overstate the influence this one family had on the fates of many Americans, and the roles just these few men played in world history. During Philip's tenure, Lehman Brothers provided funding for the construction of the Panama Canal, and was involved in the creation of the New York Stock Exchange. And Mayer Lehman's son Herbert, who was born in New York, went on to become a four-term governor of New York in the 1930s and 40s, and then a senator.

And so it makes for a sweeping, operatic tale that weaves history with family dynamics, the actors mostly remaining emotionless and keeping an amused distance from the family's tribulations. The Lehman Trilogy is at its mesmerizing best in gliding through decades of American history, narrating how this company's rise mirrored the country's in numerous ways. And Mendes's deft direction adds power through the choreography of this story telling at every turn.

The play is notably gentle, though, in its treatment of slavery and the Lehmans' complicity in America's original sin, for reasons of easy profit. The text never mentions, for instance, that Mayer Lehman himself owned slaves, though it does portray Mayer as an apologist for and champion of Alabama during Reconstruction.

These ethical failings and this ugly history get only slight mentions — a passing character notes, when the South loses the Civil War, that "Everything that was built here was built on a crime" and "It had to end this way." The script is careful to trace, though, how the brothers' religion was ultimately superceded by the god of money alone — while the brothers observed a traditional week of shiva (mourning) after the death of their eldest brother, by the time Philip, the first of the second generation dies, the company observes only three seconds of silence before continuing business.

(L-R): Aaron Krohn (Mayer Lehman), John Heffernan (Henry Lehman), and Howard W. Overshown (Emanuel Lehman) in the National Theatre and Neal Street Productions’ critically acclaimed, five-time Tony Award winning production, 'The Lehman Trilogy,' performing at A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theater now through Sunday, June 23, 2024. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

The set by designer Es Devlin is an inspired, corporate-office replica of a steel-framed glass cube, complete with modern glass dividers, a leather office couch, and a conference table, built on a spinning turntable. The cube rotates in an apt visualization of the passage of time, and there is otherwise clever use of banker's boxes — stacked, restacked, stood and sat upon — to enact various imaginary setpieces. Projections across a broad screen that encircles the cube depict New York from the 19th through the 20th Century, as well as various other, sometimes stark and sometimes dizzying, visual effects.

The closing in of the 1929 market crash, for instance, is depicted by a creeping incursion of blackness from above and below.

And the play is underscored by a piano soundtrack played live in the theater — at ACT by pianist Rebekah Bruce Parker — composed by Nick Powell, that lends a certain timeless gravitas to the proceedings.

It's hard not to be moved by the end of the play, though it is essentially just depicting the abrupt — and well deserved — collapse of a soulless company. The actors — excellent, all — remain staid, and let the story speak for itself. The text leaves it up to the imagination how the collapse of Lehman Brothers might have devastated particular individuals' finances.

It is just the company, as a character, that we understand as dead after a 164-year run that enriched many people, those named Lehman and not.

But there is a larger idea at work about how economies are poisoned, and about how the very ideas we have about money — the faith it requires to create wealth, and to keep believing in how everything must grow for this system to keep going — are fictions. It's the ways in which these fictions are fundamental to one family's story, and to America's story, that have the power to stun.

The Lehman Trilogy plays through June 23 at ACT's Toni Rembe Theater. Find tickets here.