Chicago actor Mitchell J. Fain is one of three performers headlining TimeLine Theatre Company's upcoming production of The Lehman Trilogy.
Fain brings over 30 years of performing experience in the Chicago area to the table, including shows at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Northlight Theatre and Lookingglass Theatre Company. But this out-and-proud entertainer is especially known for two long-running local gigs: Theatre Wit's The Santaland Diaries (for eight years) and Midnight Circus in the Parks (for 17 years).
In his upcoming role in The Lehman Trilogy, Fain portrays a Jewish man named Henry Lehman, one of three brothers who immigrated to America in 1844. The trio created a successful investment firm that eventually collapsed in 2008. All three performersFain, Anish Jethmalani and Joey Slotnickplay multiple roles to convey the 163-year timeline during a three-act play.
The Lehman Trilogy has been translated into 24 languages and won five Tony Awards in 2022. This productiona Chicago premiereopens Sept. 19 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place. This production is the first time Fain has collaborated with the esteemed theater company, and he took time out of his busy rehearsal process to talk about the experience.
Windy City Times: Hi, Mitchell. Start with your pronouns and identity.
Mitchell J. Fain: He/him, and I like the umbrella of queer because it involves gays, lesbians and allies that don't quite fit in with everyone else. I have straight guy friends who feel connected to gay men and sometimes don't know how to identify themselves, but I feel they fit under that umbrella too. I am a gay man that loves the word queer!
WCT: You have a Jewish background?
MJF: Yes, both my parents were Jewish. My father's side is German Jewish and my mother's side is Russian Jewish. There are distinctions when my family immigrated here, which is what this show is about.
I am from Rhode Island and was born in the secret jewel of New England. I studied theater there, and also English literature on my way to being a teacher.
WCT: The Santaland Diaries eventually became an important show for you, didn't it?
MJF: It was my entire forties! I had three gigs that repeated for a decade, so I had a contract with Second City on cruise ships in the spring, then Midnight Circus in the summer and Santaland Diaries in the winter. After Santa, I wrote my show for myself and Meghan Murphy for two years.
WCT: Describe this new project for you.
MJF: It is called The Lehman Trilogy because it is a three-act play about the Lehman family, who were part of the banking collapse in 2008. The play looks back to figure out how it happened while looking at the history of immigration, banking and capitalism.
WCT: What do you like or dislike about your character Henry?
MJF: There are three narrators, and the story ranges between 1844 and 2008. We play a lot of characters. I play Henry, of the three brothers, and he is the first to arrive in America. I play the grandson of another brother, the wife of someone and also several businessmen.
There is a concept with Jewish people and money that is an antisemitic trope. This play is about Jews and money, but also about how that happened. This very brave, young guy had to leave Germany because there were no opportunities in 1844. Henry came over and created a business with his brothers. This show is about how we lose our traditions and religion to have it replaced by capitalism.
I love Henry because he's a tough guy. He gets on a boat, not a fancy cruise ship, by himself with other people who don't speak the same language to come to New York.
I play Philip Lehman, who was wildly influential, and also Robert Lehman's wife.
WCT: Are you wearing drag?
MJF: No. Each one of us plays around 25 different characters, so we simply become them for the storytelling. We use our bodies and voices with very few add-on props or costume pieces.
WCT: This sounds like a lot of work.
MJF: There is a lot of preparation. We have two dramaturges and the head of the Jewish Studies department of American University in DC sitting with us during table reads. We have two dialect coaches. The set design is next level. TimeLine Theatre Company gives excellence all around!
WCT: The Lehman family profited from slave trading. Is that addressed in this show?
MJF: The play addresses that this country was built on the backs of slaves. It does not address that the Lehman brothers had slaves. The huge novel that the play is based on does.
If I were a playwright would I address it more? Yes.
WCT: Besides covering a great deal of serious territory I heard there are many jokes along the way.
MJF: Joey Slotnick is known for being a funny man as he previously played Groucho Marx at Goodman Theatre. We find the funny!
WCT: Is everyone Jewish in the cast?
MJF: No. Two of us are, and we discussed it during the reading. I felt it was important that at least one of the three actors be Jewish. I'm Jewish and Joey Slotnick is also of Jewish heritage. Anish is not, but the play is about the immigrant experience and what happens when someone comes to this country with nothing.
WCT: Are there LGBTQ+ members within the Lehman family?
MJF: Not that I know of. I'm a queer person that is onstage, and even though I am not playing an exclusively queer person, since it is my voice, then there is a queer experience here.
WCT: Why do you think The Lehman story still resonates with audiences today?
MJF: Because it is about the American dream, and people come to this country with hopes. People forget that people are risking their lives to come here for a concept that America has sold about living the American dream, and they can make something for themselves when they arrive through hard work. It is still true, but a lot of people are finding it harder than it used to be.
We lose tradition and history when it is replaced by capitalism. We live in times where it is clear that capitalism as a concept is screwing people over. This play still resonates because it is still happening.
WCT: What are your plans for the future?
MJF: While I am in Lehman, I will be working on Midnight Circus in the Parks on Sept. 9 and 10 for two shows each day at Welles Park. For the first time we are throwing a fundraiser to survive as a company, and there will be walk-up tickets available. Some of the best circus performers in the world have flown in on their dime for this show to support us.
Alex Grelle and Rob Lindley put together a spoof of the movie Stepmom called STEPMOM At The Old Ethan Allen Space at Steppenwolf Theatre. It played during Pride month and I received great feedback after being in it. Stay tuned because we are doing it again in December and this show is a ball of joy!
WCT: If you could change something about the Chicago theater scene what would you like to change?
MJF: I would like things to move towards more diversity in theater, including leadership. The movement towards this goal still has a lot of work to do.
WCT: If there was a play or musical about you, what would it be called?
MJF: Rhode Island The Musical! I am happy that Rhode Island is my identity. I love Chicago and have lived here for 30 years. I have not missed visiting Rhode Island every summer after moving to Chicago, and it is the best-kept secret. You can take the boy out of Rhode Island, but you can't take Rhode Island out of the boy!�
The Lehman Trilogy leaps into the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 East Chestnut St., from Sept. 19 - Oct. 29, 2023. Trilogy tickets are currently available at BroadwayInChicago.com and be sure to follow Fain's acrobatic exploits at MidnightCircus.net .