Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through Jan. 7, 2018
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County,” “Linda Vista”) has a talent for showing human nature at its worst. In the superbly acted world premiere of “The Minutes” at Steppenwolf Theatre, his realm is small-town politics, and he exposes everything from petty mendacity and venality to devastating fundamental falsehoods. The implications, of course, resonate profoundly in this era of Trumpism.
The 90-minute play starts off innocuously enough in Big Cherry’s city council meeting room, stunningly rendered by scenic designer David Zinn with everything from an arched coffered ceiling to a mural setting off ordinary modern furniture. It’s a stormy night punctuated by claps of thunder courtesy of sound designer Andre Pluess and occasional sputtering and blackouts by lighting designer Brian MacDevitt (amusingly, ComEd is a sponsor).
First to arrive for the weekly meeting, a closed session though the reason isn’t given, is Mr. Peel (Cliff Chamberlain), a relatively new member who was absent the previous week for his mother’s funeral and wants to find out what happened, especially since he’s heard that another member, Mr. Carp (Ian Barford appears in a flashback), was ousted from the board. No one will tell him, and when it’s time to approve the minutes, he’s informed that they haven’t been prepared for that week yet.
As the others gather and the session convenes, the satire unfolds in exchanges that are increasingly heated and sometimes very funny. Everyone has a personal ax to grind. Mr. Oldfield (Francis Guinan, with the right degree of fussiness), the longest-serving member (most have names worthy of Dickens). is obsessed with parking and the disposition of Mr. Carp’s former space. Ms. Innes (Penny Slusher, slightly daffy) wants to read a long letter of appreciation for the annual heritage festival, though Mayor Superba (William Peterson) keeps trying to stop her so the proceedings can continue. Ditzy Ms. Matz (Sally Murphy) doesn’t seem to be all there, while Ms. Johnson (Brittany Burch), the clerk who takes her job very seriously, is the super-organized opposite.
One item on the agenda is Mr. Hanratty’s (Danny McCarthy) grand and expensive proposal to replace the town fountain with a wheelchair-accessible version, which is sparked by the fact that his sister is in a wheelchair. The most virulent objections come from self-satisfied Mr. Breeding (Kevin Anderson), who doesn’t see why “normal” people should have to pay to accommodate the handicapped. Mr. Blake (James Vincent Meredith), the only African American on the board, advocates making the Lincoln Smackdown, a fund-raising game involving a metal cage at the town’s annual celebration, a permanent attraction.
Also related to the yearly November 27festival is the issue of lost and stolen bicycles that have been recovered and kept in a warehouse. They’re earmarked for poor children, but apparently Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still) has been selling them online and giving the money to his brother. And Mr. Carp uncovered the misappropriation.
Just when we think this may be the reason Mr. Carp was kicked off the council, we learn that the truth is much, much darker. Mr. Peel keeps peeling away at what strikes him as a cover-up of the missing minutes, and eventually they are read. What they reveal strikes at the core of the myth of the town’s foundation in 1867, a story of white heroism that is re-enacted for Peel–who isn’t a Big Cherry native though his wife is–when he asks about the statue on Mr. Hanratty’s proposed fountain.
Mr. Carp was convinced that the very different real story needed to be told, even though it belied everything the people of Big Cherry believed about themselves. Mr. Peel is too but….and here’s where “The Minutes” switches from a sort of heightened, insightful realism into surreal mode.
I don’t want to say more, but the ending doesn’t work for me at all. Yes, it encapsulates primal tribal instincts merely masked beforehand, but I would much rather see a finale that was truer to the individual characters Letts draws so finely and the actors embody so perfectly. Besides being more believable, it would be more biting.