BWW Review: THE MINUTES at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Tracy Letts's world premiere THE MINUTES, now making its debut at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, unfolds in an unsuspecting manner. Both because the play has a smart structure that shifts over the course of the 100-minute runtime and also because the content left me contemplative for days after seeing it. Here Letts uses the framework of a small town's council meeting as a microcosm of a larger discussion on the current political climate (though this play is not overtly about Trump's presidency) and the desire to cling to certain ideologies in the name of order and group preservation, though those long-held beliefs may not be true. To borrow from Stephen Colbert, Letts has written a play that compellingly examines the appeal of "truthiness" in this contentious political environment.
The play begins with what appears to be a routine meeting for the council members of Big Cherry, helmed by the town's long-time Mayor Superba (expertly performed by William Petersen with the right balance of command and slightly forced warmth). The longest-standing council member Mr. Oldfield (a superb and perfectly cast turn by Fran Guinan) remarks about a recently vacated parking spot in the town and inquires as to whether he might have it, while Ms. Innes (Penny Slusher) wants to read a lengthy written statement to the council. Letts delightfully demonstrates the inefficacy of small town government with these moments to supremely humorous effect.
But the meeting takes a turn when the newest council member Mr. Peel (Cliff Chamberlain) raises a question. Mr. Peel missed the last meeting for his mother's funeral, and he wonders why council member Mr. Karp (played in flashback by Ian Barford) is no longer present. He becomes further perplexed by the missing minutes from last week's meeting (from which the play derives its title) that might elucidate precisely what is happening with the council. This mystery provides a sense of intrigue and tension in a play that initially seems like it might not have much of either, but Letts smartly uses this device to transition to THE MINUTES' deeper truths and themes.
As the meeting progresses, we see just how strongly the council members of Big Cherry hold to their existing beliefs and legends about their town. When Mr. Peel reveals that he does not know the story behind the central statue that resides in the town's main fountain, the council members quickly launch into a rehearsed and precisely orchestrated reenactment. Keen audience members will notice, however, that all is not right with this reenactment as one male council member repeatedly grabs the behind of a female council member. In this way, Letts subtly references the inappropriate under-the-radar behavior that defines so much of modern politics. The precise movements of this reenactment (choreography by Dexter Bullard) demonstrate how beloved the council members find this story and how eager they are to impart the details onto the newest member.
Under the helm of Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro, THE MINUTES is one of the finest exercises in ensemble acting that I have ever seen, and all involved are superbly cast. As mentioned, Petersen hits all the right notes as Mayor Superba. Chamberlain finds a great balance between earnestness and curiosity as Mr. Peel. Sally Murphy's impeccable timing and humorous delivery highlight all the eccentries of her character Mrs. Matz. Kevin Anderson is rightfully unsettling as Mr. Breeding, a council member who is disgustingly ignorant and far from politically correct. As Mr. Assalone, Jeff Still gives a performance torn between determination (as he consistently reminds the council clerk how to pronounce his name correctly) and general disengagement when it comes to the actual issues at hand. As Mr. Blake, James Vincent Meredith gives a solid and entertaining performance that I have come to expect from him, making the most of a character that Letts could yet further develop. As the council clerk Ms. Carp, Brittany Burch is undeniably excellent and helps raise the stakes and tension in THE MINUTES with her character's surprising revelations. Overall there is not a weak link in this cast, and they all work together so collaboratively and each find moments to take the spotlight.
While I cannot share the final moments of THE MINUTES, suffice to say that the last scene capitalizes on Letts's exploration of the Darwinian instincts that can often drive politics. Letts articulates this struggle powerfully in THE MINUTES and allows us to contemplate that pivotal question of whether it is more important to go along with the group to achieve success or if it is better to stick to our morals, even when they fly in the face of what others think and may lead to our destruction. THE MINUTES brilliantly explores this dichotomy and leaves audiences with much to contemplate.
Photo by Michael Brosilow