Stages

The Minutes at Steppenwolf Is a Satire of Small Town Politics—and a Modern Morality Play

Still, Petersen and Anderson. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Steppenwolf Theatre’s world premiere of The Minutes by Tracy Letts takes place during a small town city council meeting. It’s a satire of small-town politics, individual grievances and so much more. Viewed totally, it’s an example of theater at its best. Entertaining, thought-provoking, puzzling, conversation-starting.

Steppenwolf bills it as a comedy and the opening night audience seemed to agree with that for the first hour of The Minutes. Giggles and guffaws punctuated the action during the Big Cherry City Council meeting. During the last 30-40 minutes, the audience was silent. Anna D. Shapiro has done a superb job of mood- and time-shifting, as well as choreographing an event (a city council meeting?) that could have been deadly boring.

The playwright, who can be depended upon for complexity, turns a small town city council meeting into a modern morality play. The council members come in out of a rainstorm to wrestle with local issues and finally, with what their history really means—and what it really is. You may think The Minutes presents a microcosm of contemporary issues, such as racism and who gets to tell our story. You may scratch your head on the way out—but you’ll have plenty to discuss with your friends after the show.

The cast brings some fine Chicago actors to the stage to play the council members. William Petersen plays Mayor Superba. Francis Guinan plays Mr. Oldfield, the most senior member of the council, who desperately wants to bring the subject of parking to the agenda. Danny McCarthy is Mr. Hanratty, who flourishes large display boards to illustrate his proposal for a new accessible fountain in Mackie Creek Park. James Vincent Meredith as Mr. Blake proposes adding a Lincoln Smackdown feature to the local heritage festival. And Mr. Peel (Cliff Chamberlain), who missed the last meeting because of the death of his mother, keeps demanding answers to two questions: Where are the minutes of the last meeting? And what happened to Mr. Carp? When Mr. Carp (Ian Barford) finally appears, he reads a story that turns the meeting on its head.

Kevin Anderson, Jeff Still, Sally Murphy and Penny Slusher play other council members. Brittany Burch is Ms. Johnson, the city clerk, who is quite conscious of her official responsibilities and performs decisively when she finally reads those missing minutes.

David Zinn’s scenic design for the council chambers is perfect. I almost thought I was back in DeKalb, Illinois, when I walked into the theater. Brian McDevitt’s lighting design surely included the occasional light dimmings, flashes and lights out as the rainstorm continues outside. (Appropriately, Com Ed is the sponsor of the production.) Dexter Bullard is responsible for the choreography.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what Bullard was choreographing or any more about The Minutes itself. No spoilers here.

I knew before attending that I would find The Minutes interesting. Although I’ve been back in my hometown of Chicago for 30-some years, I spent many years in small towns, mostly college towns, in Colorado, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Illinois. None of them were suburbs and none of them had populations over 25,000. And because it’s much easier to get involved in local matters in a small town, I’ve attended many city council meetings, school board meetings and planning board meetings. And I was occasionally a member of one of those groups or its subsets.

My question for playwright Letts: Why is this (and the previous week’s meeting) a closed city council meeting? Most state open meetings laws would not consider any of the agenda topics to be justification for a closed meeting. Dramatically, that does mean there are no members of the public to deal with in staging. But for the sake of political accuracy, it seems to me an error.

Tracy Letts is an accomplished actor and playwright. His other plays include August Osage County, Linda Vista, Mary Page Marlowe and Killer Joe.

The Minutes runs 100 minutes and continues at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, through January 7. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday. Buy tickets for $20-$105 online or by calling 312-335-1650.

Categories: Stages, Theater

4 replies »

  1. This play felt pretentious, like every actor up there was the council member they were demeaning. It was weird. Why hasn’t anyone brought up Mr Blake and Lincoln Slammin’ (sp?) Was this a nod to Top Dog Under Dog or sub conscience plagiarism? Not very original and another cliche. When the audience asked why the paint was red at the end…the answer was, because we didn’t want black paint on white faces, or white paint on the black man’s face and heaven forbid, not yellow paint….etc. What happened to blue paint? excuse me…This play was a disappointment. I kept wishing Mr Peel had come back to his mother’s death in the end of the play. It was left hanging. The play needs editing and further development of the characters mentioned above.

  2. It’s a very good point — one which should have caused you to give the play a much lower rating.
    The answer is because Letts knows that no matter what he writes, the sychophants will say it is great.

  3. Same here–thought it odd to have no public members in the city council meeting! And can’t decide if ending was ‘true-to-life’ event or just the results of group dreaming! Overall, good play but as the old saying goes “all politics is local” and this is same. A few of the actors seem to be drinking an over-dramatic cup of tea but will probably tone down in a few more performances.
    Not sure this one is going to take off like Letts earlier play…

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