Chicago Theater Review: THE MINUTES (Steppenwolf)

by Lawrence Bommer on November 22, 2017

in Theater-Chicago

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BLOOD—AND WAR PAINT—WILL OUT

Superbly civic, the vast council chamber created by set designer David Zinn reeks of rectitude. With a coffered arched ceiling, it’s festooned with plaques, proclamations, a World War I-era mural of maidens, even a cabinet of curiosities including a skull. This imposing auditorium oozes continuity, respectability and local pride. Pre-show patriotic marches bravely blare. A prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance are recited. It’s the prelude to a closed town council’s meeting. But something is amiss: Accompanied by a loud buzz, the lights flicker, a disruption taken as normal.

But this will not be a regular session.

It’s the traditional but treacherous locale for Steppenwolf Theatre’s premiere of The Minutes, a new work with Broadway ambitions. In this latest provocation by Tracy Letts (August: Osage County, Bug, Killer Joe, Linda Vista)—archly shaped by artistic director Anna D. Shapiro—the banality of evil gets a brand new whitewash.

The tiny burg of Big Cherry is unexceptional, except for a passing allusion to a long-ago rape and abortion. Mainly there’s Friday night football and a proposed town-square renovation to showcase the village’s beloved founders’ festival: The annual celebration of the Battle of Mackle Creek proudly reenacts the town’s 1867 salvation from savages: The embattled frontiersmen were rescued by intrepid but outnumbered U.S. soldiers who, sharp-shooting with remarkable rapidity, slaughtered a war party of attacking Sioux and thwarted the kidnapping of a white girl. As the little innocent was returned to her grateful family, the rescuer pronounced the town’s eventual slogan: “Here is your future!” It’s also, fatefully, their past.

We’re privy to the November 1st meeting, presided over by clout-laden Mayor Superba (avuncular to aggressive William Petersen). The nine “solons” of Big Cherry—some “weathervanes”, others simply under sway—indulge in self-serving log-rolling, petty squabbles over parking privileges, and small-town small talk about the recent rain and a plague of ants. Senile, well-named Mr. Oldfield (garrulous Francis Guinan) brags of his 27 years ruling the roost, though for him coping with the next moment presents a challenge. Though African-American, devious councilor Blake (James Vincent Meredith) proposes a permanent entertainment—a “Lincoln Smackdown” cage-match allowing haters of Honest Abe to go one-on-one with an impersonator of the 16th President.

But there’s a serious side too: Rebellious new council-member Mr. Peel (Cliff Chamberlain), absent from the last meeting because of the death of his mother, wonders why the minutes from October 25th have not been published. And why was council member Carp (Ian Barford) kicked off the council and has now disappeared? According to distinguished dowager Ms. Innes (Penny Slusher), a “crisis of confidence” threatens the upper echelons of this all-American hamlet.

Triggering scary secrets that question whether Big Cherry’s origins are a legacy or a curse is a seemingly innocuous scandal. It involves police-confiscated bikes that weren’t, as ordered, donated to a charity, instead sold by the mayor’s legislative crony (Jeff Still) to finance a fire engine for the festival. If all politics is personal, this brouhaha gets quickly real, with crusader Peel, pursuing this seeming scam, demanding that the minutes be read by the reluctant council clerk (Brittany Burch).

The maverick gets his way—and, well, no more can be disclosed. (My minutes remain sealed.) It’s just that the past never passes…

It is safe to say that, wittingly or not, Letts’ Kafkaesque piece of Americana owes an arm and a leg to two specific sources. The first is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a story about a small-town with a popular—and horrific—annual ritual: In a rite of purgation, a human sacrifice is chosen by lot and stoned to death. The other is Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People: The town doctor in a Norwegian spa threatens its economic well-being (i.e, tourist trade) by exposing the pollution of its famed healing mineral waters. (There’s also a touch of Stephen King’s admonition against building over hidden Native American burial grounds.)

Combine Kafka, Jackson, King, and Ibsen and you get a heavy hint at the menace behind The Minutes. But even if these 100 minutes carry heavy déjà vu, Letts delivers his usual sardonic-to-scathing dialogue, cunning contradictions, jokes that are defiantly on us, and a blood-curdling finale to make nightmares seem nice.

Corruption, like charity, begins at home. Shapiro’s sharp-edged cast of eleven accomplish deft comic turns amid darkening doings. They freshen a familiar fright-fest. As for the meaning of The Minutes, well, “Here’s your future.”

photos by Michael Brosilow

The Minutes
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted
ends on December 31, 2017
EXTENDED to January 7, 2018
for tickets, call 312.335.1650 or visit Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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