James Vincent Meredith (Mr. Blake) and Cliff Chamberlain (Mr. Peel) in The Minutes, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, at Steppenwolf Theatre.
James Vincent Meredith and Cliff Chamberlain in The Minutes, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, at Steppenwolf Theatre.
(© Michael Brosilow)

Tracy Letts's timely new play, The Minutes, which is currently premiering at Steppenwolf Theatre, explores an issue that has been part of the American discourse often in the last year. In the age of alternative facts and fake news, how can we guard the truth — the objective, factual truth — from those who would benefit from its erasure? And how can we convince the masses to resist the convenient and palatable falsehoods that are offered to them?

Set in the fictional town of Big Cherry, U.S.A., The Minutes concerns a closed meeting of the local city council on an appropriately dark and stormy night. The meeting is presided over by Mayor Superba (William Petersen), flanked by powerful councilmen Mr. Breeding (Kevin Anderson) and Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still). Their trifecta looms over the rest of the room, including Mr. Oldfield (Francis Guinan), the irascible senior member of the council, and Ms. Johnson (Brittany Burch), the competent council clerk. Freshman councilman Mr. Peel (Cliff Chamberlain), a young father who is relatively new to Big Cherry, returns to town after a week away following his mother's death. In his absence, much has changed, but nobody is willing to disclose exactly what or why.

What begins as a satire of the big personalities in small-town government, reminiscent of the television series Parks and Recreation, gradually transforms into something more closely resembling William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Politeness gives way to sharp-toothed tribalism. Despite its surreality, The Minutes explores universal, if uncomfortable, questions: If we benefit from the sins of our ancestors, should we feel guilt? How much are we willing to overlook in the pursuit of our own goals? To borrow a line from the play itself, just what kind of community do you want to live in?

The Minutes boasts a deep bench of talented Chicago actors, with notable standouts Danny McCarthy and James Vincent Meredith, whose interactions as the squabbling Mr. Hanratty and Mr. Blake are among the play's funniest moments. Chamberlain gives a multifaceted performance as the dogged newcomer Mr. Peel delves deeper into Big Cherry's past. The female councilwomen are mostly silent (excluding a lengthy prepared statement by Ms. Innes, expertly performed by Penny Slusher), but their silence feels conscious rather than carelessly underdeveloped.

Anna D. Shapiro's economical direction makes the action familiar but never boring, a trick shared by the true-to-life detailing in Ana Kuzmanic's costume design and David Zinn's scenic design, a municipal meeting hall that has seen better days. Continuing throughout is Letts's dialogue, which is nothing less than pitch perfect. Conversational and knowing, his script sharply examines both the petty, minute decisions that shape our day-to-day life, and the broad problems that loom over our lifetimes and cast a shadow on our history. The Minutes is a thoughtful, gripping play, just a little frightening and all too familiar.