Steppenwolf Theatre presents THE MINUTES Review – Micro meeting, macro message

Steppenwolf Theatre THE MINUTES
David Zinn's soaring set for a city council room in THE MINUTES, a new play by Tracy Letts at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Steppenwolf Theatre THE MINUTES
Cliff Chamberlain as a local dentist and Brittany Burch as the town clerk in Tracy Letts' THE MINUTES, direted by Anna Shapiro Photo by Michael Brosilow

If God is in the details, the Almighty can be found in the set for THE MINUTES, Tracy Letts’ new play now onstage at Steppenwolf. Scenic designer David Zinn’s small town council room gets it right down to the water stain around a wall vent.  Layers of physical renovations -- a 1920s neo-classical mural co-existing with 1960s light fixtures, for example – capture a changing American landscape of styles, safety codes and technology. 

A viewer almost feels dwarfed by this tall snapshot of a tiny municipality. The time is now and the place is Big Cherry, a place somewhere in the United States with a long history. Here, democracy plays out during monthly council meetings. A clerk records the minutes on a sleek laptop but what she records is timeless. Be it Congress or local government, people say too much about too little.

As they talk the talk of high mindedness, Big Cherry’s civic leaders walk the walk of self-interest and self-preservation. The lights flicker off and on due to an aging power grid. But that major problem is brushed off without comment while parking spot assignments and the annual heritage festival suck up oxygen. For THE MINUTES’ 100 minutes, we shift from wondering why we’re listening to so much time-wasting chatter to dropping our jaws as deceptions and abuses emerge.

Steppenwolf Theatre’s ensemble delivers

Letts blends acute naturalism with stylizations such as council members pausing to enact a critical episode in Big Cherry history with white settlers and Native Americans. The transitions struck this viewer as far from seamless. The play’s content doesn’t always seem to work well with its form. But Anna Shapiro’s laser-sharp direction and her superb cast deliver the flawed script with must-see excellence.

THE MINUTES offers the rare chance to see many actors from Steppenwolf’s founding ensemble working together again. Once the young turks of Chicago’s emerging theater scene, William Petersen, Kevin Anderson, Francis Guinan, Sally Murphy and Ian Barford are now its distinguished veterans.

Steppenwolf Theatre THE MINUTES
THE MINUTES features Sally Murphy, one of Steppenwolf Theatre's longtime ensemble members. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Ironically, Petersen plays the mayor of Big Cherry, exactly the kind of town where Petersen would be well-known for his years as Gil Grissom on CBS’ popular CSI. James Vincent Meredith, a more recent ensemble member, plays the council’s lone African American with subtle awareness of just how much he does and doesn’t belong among his white colleagues.  

These six are joined by other fine Chicago actors who bring us the recognizable textures of town life, whether expressing superficial condolences to a council member who just lost his mother or responding to a proposal for a wheelchair accessible fountain. Everyone in the large cast moves effortlessly from sardonic humor to soaring ideals to disturbing darkness.

Base instincts beneath THE MINUTES’ civility

The quirky characters are all very familiar – until the story takes us elsewhere. Why last month’s minutes – and a council member -- are missing becomes the mystery that opens up the past: Not only the immediate past but the distant past of Big Cherry’s actual heritage. Beneath the surface of Robert’s Rules of Order, the savage nature of ordinary people erupts. How did these people come to claim this place as their own? It’s not pretty. Through the microcosmic lens of the meeting, Tracy Letts conveys a macrocosmic message about American democracy.


Steppenwolf Theatre THE MINUTES
Jeff Still, Danny McCarthy, Cliff Chamberlain, William Petersen and James Vincent Meredith in Tracy Letts' THE MINUTES, playing now through January 7 at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow


Now through January 7
Tuesdays – Fridays at 7:30 PM
Saturdays at 3:00 & 7:30 PM
Sundays at 3:00 PM  (and at 7:30 PM on 11/26 & 12/3)


Steppenwolf Theatre Company
1650 N. Halsted
Chicago, IL

About the Author

Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. She is currently working on a commission for BBC Radio. 

Editor's Note: Click here to find more Picture This Post reviews by Susan Lieberman

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