In The Minutes, Tracy Letts’ timely and unnerving dark comedy, Noah Reid (Schitt’s Creek) plays Mr. Peel, a wide-eyed, newly elected city councilman in the fictional small town of Big Cherry. Early in this week’s meeting, performed in real time at Studio 54, Peel’s eccentric colleagues mispronounce ‘piqued’ and ‘jejune’ and squabble over the difference between “semantics” and “nomenclature,” and what constitutes new vs. old business.
The meeting takes place in the time-worn chamber of an historic municipal building, where a foreboding thunderstorm taxes the building’s ancient wiring, periodically causing the lights to dim.
While skewering the pomp of local government, Letts has bigger things on his agenda in this winning Steppenwolf production, primarily what happens when truth is manipulated for political ends. In Big Cherry, the annual Heritage Festival is a defining event. Locals gather on Friday nights to watch the high school football team, The Savages–a name no one on the council finds problematic.
Anna D. Shapiro directs a flawless ensemble that features Austin Pendleton as the befuddled Mr. Oldfield; Blair Brown as his contemporary, Ms. Innes, who sports an elaborate coif reminiscent of Senator Dianne Feinstein; and Jessie Mueller as Ms. Johnson, a put-upon clerk. Letts, appearing here for the first time in one of his own works, plays the glad-handing yet firm Mayor Superba.
Letts blends the dark comedy of his earlier plays (Bug, Killer Joe) with the drama of August: Osage County, whose characters also bristle at the revelation of uncomfortable truths.
The conflict heightens when the earnest Mr. Hanratty (Danny McCarthy), whose sister is disabled, introduces a proposal to redesign a fountain in the town square to make it more accessible.
“I don’t know that normal people should have to suffer an onerous tax burden just so your sister can wheel up to a fountain,” says Mr. Breeding (Cliff Chamberlain).
“Normal people?” Hanratty responds.
“Oh, here we go, the language police,” Breeding retorts.
The councilmembers are nonetheless enamored with the centerpiece of the design, a statue of Otto Pym, a white man on horseback, and the hero of the town’s origin story. For Peel’s benefit, the group performs a hilarious reenactment of that story, The Battle at Mackie Creek, in which European settlers vanquish the Native Americans.
Peel is neither amused nor convinced. His skepticism yields to frustration when the council tries to thwart his attempt to see the minutes of the previous week’s session, which he’d missed. He’s also puzzled why Mr. Carp (Ian Barford, Linda Vista) a councilmember who’d been in attendance that week, was dismissed from the committee, and has since gone missing.
Peel persists, however, and soon he understands why he’d been stymied, and why Carp has been silenced: he’d uncovered a more credible, yet far less flattering, version of the town’s history: “We built this town on a fiction,” Carp insists, in a flashback.
A now angry Peel must face off with a defiant mayor, for whom the truth is an existential threat. To the mayor, “history is a…verb,” i.e. open to interpretation (as long as it’s his). His stance finds good company in the current political climate, where book-banning and “don’t say gay” bills are being passed in states around the U.S.
A final tonal shift, this time from drama to horror, sets up a chilling, yet heavy-handed, denouement to an otherwise riveting parable of political corruption.