“Democracy is messy.”
As we sit in our seats waiting for the show to begin we fix our gaze on a floor-to-ceiling mural of three women holding many different objects including the caduceus. Seconds later we see three men take their seats in front of the mural and begin the meeting. Tracey Letts’s new play, The Minutes, at Steppenwolf Theatre Company invites us into a town meeting for an up-close view a small slice of our country’s democracy. Directed by Steppenwolf’s Artistic Director, Anna D. Shapiro, The Minutes asks us all to “Wake up!”
A stormy night in Big Cherry, Mr. Peele returns to the town council after missing last week’s meeting. After an uneasy prayer, the pledge of allegiance, and essential local football updates, the council discusses the town’s most important matters while everyone avoids the obvious absence of Mr. Carp. Letts introduces us to a group of individuals with emblematic names which let us know what we can expect from each of them. With Mr. Assalone on his right, and Mr. Breeding on his left, we watch Mayor Superba and his group of part-time local government misfits (Mr. Oldfield, Mrs. Innes, Ms. Matz, and Mr. Blake) attempt to make decisions that they believe are best for Big Cherry, a town with a rich or, as we soon learn, troubled, history of which they are all extremely proud. As the members discuss and vote, we become desperate to figure out what the mayor and other members may be hiding. Meanwhile, Mr. Peele (who is equally as out-of-the-loop as we are) persistently attempts to get to the bottom of things, as he is continuously told that the minutes from last week’s meeting are “not ready.” Things only become more bizarre as this routine, weekly town meeting spirals out of control. Truths are exposed as each answer creates more questions in us.
Hyper-naturalistic staging throughout this political one act leads us all to a place that we are comfortable with seeing from Steppenwolf. However, as we can also expect, we are to never get too comfortable or sit back too far in our seats. It is this very moment that Letts and Shapiro are waiting for. Equal to the clerk’s (Ms. Johnson’s) subtle way of encouraging Peele to dig deeper and expose the truth, Shapiro drops clever moments throughout, allowing the audience to pick up what they will. It is easy to get lost in attempting to discover all of the subtle winks and symbolism in the vastly detailed, highly naturalistic set created by David Zinn. The blend of new world and old word architecture paired with intentionally faulty electrical work creates an ominous atmosphere that never quite allows us to feel comfortable. We remain on edge.
The Minutes has the audience laughing uncontrollably before they can question what they are laughing at. As the council reenacts the beloved story of the history of Big Cherry for Mr. Peele, Mr. Breeding’s sly hand on Mrs. Johnson’s hip triggers a roar of laughter from the crowd. Acts of sexual harassment are amongst the most disturbing cause of laughter. Letts has us taking a real look at what we laugh at and why we laugh. Is this all so funny or are our guffaws simply subconscious ways of coping with just how uncomfortable and scared we are when faced so directly with the truth?
An exploration of how history is made, who makes it, and who writes it down. A play about the blind, the sacred, and the unjust. A play about a small town that somehow resonates throughout big cities, The Minutes leaves you reflecting on the present and questioning the past. Your heart beats with a passion for change and an eagerness to join in the conversation, yet we all find ourselves quietly sitting in the dark and observing while everything happens in front of us. Disgusted by the behavior of the people on stage, we are forced to reflect on ourselves. Frustration grows with the small parts of us that identify with our least favorites characters. This challenging production is not shy in holding up the mirror for all of us and exposing the truth that when you’re protecting the things that you hold dear, morals are negotiable.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.