Chicago Theatre Review
A Drama About Race and Privilege
The Minutes – Steppenwolf Theatre
The storm rages outside. Amidst the loud thunder and flickering lights, the rain continues to fall outside. For the moment, all’s quiet within the cavernous town council board room in the fictional town of Big Cherry. The first to arrive is go-getter, newly elected, Mr. Peel. He’s played with spirit and amiable energy, affection and drive by Cliff Chamberlain. Mr. Peel’s greeted by longtime Mayor Superba, played with easygoing strength and a degree of menace by William Petersen, who welcomes him back after Peel’s absence the previous week. Mr. Peel was at his mother’s deathbed only seven days ago; he then traveled to the coast to attend her funeral, thus missing the last board meeting. Mayor Superba offers Mr. Peel his sympathy and then leaves the fledgling commissioner for a few moments to visit his memories and Ms. Johnson, the pretty, young Board Clerk. She’s played by one of Chicago’s finest up-and-coming actresses, Brittany Burch. Peel is an earnest, fresh-faced new official who, as we gradually discover, may be the only Board Member still excited about performing his civic duty and serving his town.
Tracy Letts’ newest play is billed as a comedy, and for the first two-thirds of this brilliantly observant 100-minute one-act, the playwright certainly delivers the laughs. But in the last third of the play, things suddenly turn dark, mirroring the storm that rages outside. In this respect, Letts’ latest play, rumored to be Broadway-bound, somewhat resembles the format, tone and ultimate horror of Shirley Jackson’s classic one-act, “The Lottery.”
Soon each Board member casually strolls in and takes his or her seat. The meeting is called to order with the obligatory Pledge of Allegiance and a very funny, long-winded benediction, delivered by Mr. Peel. Soon we become aware of what a bizarrely eclectic group of men and women serve on this council. The evening’s agenda contains a lot of very homey, small town issues. It includes such items as remodeling the fountain in the town square to accommodate special needs citizens, beefing up the local Heritage Festival to include cage wrestling, and deciding how to best to distribute all the lost bicycles found by the police.
The audience becomes acquainted with each Board member during the first few minutes of the play. Mr. Oldfield (portrayed with lovable crustiness by Francis Guinan) and Mrs. Innes (played with sweetly befuddled confusion by Penny Slusher) are the two senior members of the Council. Each, we discover, is more eccentric than the other. Because of their longevity in local government, both Board Members seem to think they have earned carte blanche to speak on any topic for as long as they like. Often Mr. Oldfield and Mrs. Innes find their speeches stifled. We also meet Ms. Matz, played by the delightful Sally Murphy, an aging hippie or, at the very least, a middle age woman who enjoys her ability to self-medicate. Frequently she has to be polled several times when seeking her vote on a matter. For most of the meeting Ms. Matz appears to be either asleep or in her own world.
Mr. Hanratty, as portrayed with unassuming humor and driven enthusiasm by Danny McCarthy, seems to be cut from a similar cloth as Mr. Peel. On his agenda for this meeting is a project that will serve those with special needs, like his sister. Hanratty proclaims he’s “standing up for people who can’t.” He kind of goes off the deep end, however, with his elaborate presentation, but his earnest proposal is met with skepticism by other Board members. In particular, the insensitive Mr. Breeding, played with the sneering embodiment of political incorrectness, states that Mr. Hanratty’s fountain is too expensive and simply unnecessary. Breeding’s response to everything is pretty much negative and bigoted, and the man almost comes to blows with a couple of his fellow Board members. But, in spite of everything, Mr. Breeding’s proud of how he’s able to sway others in their decisions.
Mr. Assalone, whose name is continually, and humorously, mispronounced by the Clerk, is also a loose gun. His temper begins to flair whenever questioned about his allegiances. Assalone’s brother is the town sheriff and may be running several crooked scams that pad his own pocket. Mr. Assalone, played with pompous authority by Jeff Still, is a silent explosive, just waiting for go off. Mr. Blake, the lone African American on the Board, is played with professionalism, gentility and great intelligence by James Vincent Meredith. Blake insists that a wrestling smackdown, named for Abraham Lincoln, a political figure who had little connection to Big Cherry, would boost the attendance at the Heritage Festival. He’s as passionate about this idea as Hanratty is about promoting a redesigned town fountain. Unfortunately for the talented Meredith, the character of Mr. Blake is sadly underwritten. This becomes more evident as the play’s humor becomes dramatic and, ultimately, horrific. And this shift in mood is, at least partially, racially motivated.
Finally, after a great deal of discussion about the missing minutes from the previous week’s Board meeting, and the absence of Board member Mr. Carp from the current meeting, we finally meet the man in a flashback. It’s a crucial, eleventh hour moment in the play that informs Mr. Peel, through Ms. Johnson’s transcript of that meeting, of the serious event that occurred a week ago. The gifted Ian Barford, so brilliant in Tracy Letts’ “Linda Vista,” plays Carp with eloquence, dignity and understanding. For this character with the least amount of stage time, he quickly earns the audience’s empathy. This scene becomes the unexpected turning point of Mr. Letts’ play and, from this moment on, nothing is or will be the same.
Tony Award-winner David Zinn has designed a commanding, authentic-looking set that appears to have been dismantled from an actual town hall, brought to Chicago and reassembled on the Steppenwolf stage. It’s massive and majestic. Zinn has included lots of detail in his scenic design, from the high, arched ceiling with its recessed and florescent lighting, to the framed photographs and certificates of past board members. The dark wainscoting and white plaster walls, the patriotic mural that overlooks the room and the oversized cherrywood desks, circled like a wagon train of pioneers all dominate the space. There are even electrical outlets and wall switches for the lights. It’s another jaw-dropping work of art from a talented theatrical artist.
Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes are small town-appropriate for these low level politicians, without being cutesy or trite. Her wardrobe includes sport coats, sweaters and slacks that befit the occasion. Brian MacDevitt has created a lighting design to meet the demands of a script that calls for overall illumination, sudden power outages and flashes of lightning. And Andres Pluess returns to Steppenwolf to provide his creative skill with original music and sound design that adds realism to this play.
Anna D. Shapiro once again proves why she’s one of Chicago’s, indeed this country’s, finest directors. A Steppenwolf ensemble member for twelve years, she’s guided so many of their greatest recent productions, not the least of which was Tracy Letts’ 2008 Pulitizer Prize- and Tony Award-winning “August: Osage County.” She’s masterfully spearheaded this new production, which journeys from an unassuming comedy about eccentric, small town politics, to a heart-stopping, pulse-racing drama about race and privilege. Tracy Letts was obviously motivated to write this play by the ever-disastrous impact of the 2016 election. This is how he sees the trickle-down effects hitting small town America, and it’s truly frightening.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 19-January 7 by Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Steppenwolf box office, by calling the theatre at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.