Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts’ latest play, “The Minutes,” is billed as a “new comedy,” but it really isn’t. It is a solid and intense drama with comedic overtones and plenty of relevance to today’s political climate. “The Minutes” also happens to be Letts’ seventh play to premiere at Steppenwolf.
Set in the vaulted historic city chambers of small-town Big Cherry, USA, (the true origin of the names as you’ll later discover is quite horrific), the entire play takes place one stormy, light-flickering, grid-hissing night. Throughout it all, personal agendas, parliamentary procedures and grudges are exposed; there’s even a re-enactment of the historic Nov. 29, 1867, Battle of Mackie Creek – quite enjoyable, until you hear the truth.
We gradually are introduced to the city council. First onstage is the coolly efficient, irked-under-the-skin city clerk (a meticulous Brittany Burch) followed by newcomer pediatric dentist Mr. Peel, the defender of truth and transparency (the very capable
Cliff Chamberlain). Peel missed the last meeting and is the catalyst of the play; he’s the proverbial opener of a can of worms. Kevin Anderson is Mr. Breeding, the insensitive devil’s advocate who spouts the unpopular line and is deliciously slick, while Jeff Still counterbalances with his threatening character Mr. Assalone (his name providing the play’s recurring joke). Still’s character is involved in a bike scam with his sheriff brother. Others filter in: Danny Mccarthy’s Mr. Hanratty is the earnest and continually disappointed councilman as he attempts to sway the others with the approval of handicapped access plans. Penny Slusher is an impassioned Ms. Innes, author of a long crisis-in-confidence epistle proclaiming the need to preserve the declining Big Cherry Heritage Festival. Sally Murphy rounds out the ensemble with a ditzy, possibly heavily medicated Ms. Matz.
Three of my favorite Steppenwolf actors also appear in “The Minutes”: Francis Guinan, as the 27-year council veteran Mr. Oldfield, provides much of the comic relief with a curmudgeon’s obsession over an unclaimed parking spot. Guinan, no matter what his role, always is believable and tremendously admirable. Ian Barford is a very passionate Mr. Carp, the council person who has paid a price for his convictions and desire to make things right. And James Vincent Meredith plays the wavering Mr. Blake, supporter of the Lincoln Smackdown, with aplomb and magnetism.
William Petersen, best known to audiences for his nine years on CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” makes a rare and very welcomed return to the Steppenwolf stage. His stringent, thoughtful, controlling Mayor Superba is just that – superb. Petersen’s delivery of a speech outlining how we refuse to confront the lies of history (“democracy is messy”) because of the effects on our cocoons of comfort and existence is one of the more gripping preludes to an ending I’ve heard in a very long time. What follows will leave you both captivated, awed and maybe even a little conflicted.
Anna Shapiro, in her fifth collaboration with Letts, is a precise, cohesive and brilliant director of a strong and vivid ensemble. The set designed by Tony Award-winning David Zinn is both realistically familiar and gloriously resplendent – vaulted mural ceilings, overhead fluorescent lights, flags, even a working water fountain and fall hallway decorations. Adding another invigorating touch is the pre-show music of patriotic tunes, Sousa marches and the Monty Python Liberty Bell March.
“The Minutes” is Broadway-bound in the spring of 2018. Although the play clearly speaks to the political process today, Letts claims it is not about Trump and he already was three quarters of the way through writing when the election occurred. At the surface, “The Minutes” is more about provocative small-town politics, with the more covert question of humanity bubbling underneath. What will you allow to be kept secret? As screenwriter Anthony McCarten famously said, “The present is always in conversation with the past, and, by looking at the past, we measure the present.”
• Regina Belt-Daniels is an actress and director who began her career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. Formerly serving on the Raue Center for the Arts Board, she also is a lifetime member of TownSquare Players and a retired District 47 teacher.
WHEN: Through Jan. 7
WHERE: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago
COST & INFO: Running time is 100 minutes without an intermission. Tickets range from $43 to $105. Tickets and information: 312-335-1650 or www.steppenwolf.org.