Reviewed by Charles M. Rix
On May 15, 2022, I stepped into New York City’s Studio 54 to catch the Broadway premier of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of The Minutes by Tracy Letts. The play was slated to run on Broadway in 2020 but never officially opened due to the pandemic. Previews resumed on April 2, 2022, the show officially opened on April 17, 2022, and the company completed performances on July 24, 2022. In addition to being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2018 and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2022, the Broadway run received notoriety for raising $130K to support Save the Children’s Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund.
Letts’s dark comedy portrays a small-town council planning its Founders' Day celebration. Directed by Anna Shapiro, with scenic design by David Zinn, designer for the 2022 revival of Funny Girl, now at the August Wilson Theatre, the opening dialogue tickles our funny bones with awkward but perfectly timed interchanges between quirky committee members gathered in a large meeting room. The set places us anywhere in a Mid-American town hall, grade-school, or church-annex building. Autumnal hued lighting falls gently upon a semi-circle of blondish brown desks flanked with all-American bric-a-brac décor getting us ready for a call to order or the Pledge of Allegiance, whichever comes first. Yet within the runtime of the play—the time it would take to endure any mundane meeting—The Minutes takes us from expectations of the mundane to gut wrenching self-examination about our origin stories and what we pass on generationally.
The premise of the play is simple enough. The Founders' Day Committee in the town of Big Cherry meets to discuss this year’s celebration. But newcomer Mr. Peel (Noah Reid, Schitt’s Creek’s beloved Patrick) can’t get a straight answer to simple first-timer questions. Where are the minutes from the last meeting and why is our committee member Mr. Carp (Ian Barford) missing? As audience members, we never forget Mr. Carp is missing because his chair is empty within the semi-circle of seated members of the committee. Tension mounts as committee members resist sharing what they know about Mr. Carp and the minutes.
Letts’s “Keystone Cop” stumbling over lost minutes gets us wondering about the town of Big Cherry and what founding event could occasion such a fuss. We laugh at the shenanigans because we’ve all been tangled up with fellow human oddities trying to solve simple problems. We know the truculent Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still), the always off-topic Mr. Oldfield (Austin Pendleton), the fastidious and phlegmatic secretary Ms. Johnson (Jessie Mueller), and the master of issue avoidance Mayor Superba (Tracy Letts). We know they won’t find the minutes, but we eagerly cheer for the tenacious Mr. Peel and his efforts to save the day by finding all that is missing.
And herein lies the catch.
The people and the missing committee minutes are so familiar that we easily follow them into the revelation of Big Cherry’s dark past. Surely the origins of this town are not as sinister as what we come to learn when the missing minutes are found. Our committee members are a bit quirky, but they are good people “after all,” and not to worry, our Boy Scout Mr. Peel will right any wrongs! It gets worse. Our champion Mr. Peel trades on affability but his currency can’t buy what is needed: stopping a celebration that perpetuates a lie about the ugly truth of Big Cherry’s origin.
Through a well-crafted flashback enacted on stage by Mr. Carp and the cast, we learn about the town’s egregiously racist foundations. Mr. Peel delivers a shock-and-awe diatribe against the town’s willingness to exchange the truth for a lie in the yearly celebration. As the audience, we root for him, thinking, He’s our boy!! He’ll set ’em straight and not let them get away with lies! But will Mr. Peel have the courage to act on his words and refuse to participate in the celebration or be satisfied with a flashy but finally empty protest?
Curtain, the end. What will he do? No. Wait. What would we do? The Minutes leaves us with a question costlier than the price of a theater ticket. What are the social and generational consequences of confronting the messy and uncomfortable truths about who we are and where we came from?
The Minutes engages the complexity of our increasingly diverse culture by getting us to think about how we remember and pass along “origin stories.” Do ritual celebrations that unify one group do so at the expense of another group? Is there room in our origin stories for critical reflection, investigation as to what actually happened, and subsequent revision? Is it too socially risky to be au fait with the past and its messy details? Or do we get along better with our neighbors by just sticking with the likeable feel-good parts of our history passed down through generations?
The Steppenwolf production of The Minutes gains our trust to ask these questions through careful pacing of Mr. Peel’s questioning of the other committee members about the presence and contents of the minutes. Noah Reid’s steady performance reveals nothing about Big Cherry’s origins too soon. Ample time is provided for his questions about the missing minutes to become our questions as he and the ensemble gradually, and with good humor, lure us into curiosity, inquiry, and finally revelation. The ensemble works together so seamlessly that it is easy to imagine that each one may well represent a different part of our own psyche as we try to unpack what happened in Big Cherry. Moreover, just as Mr. Peel’s search for answers meets resistance from Mayor Superba (who distracts), Mr. Assalone (who resists), Mr. Oldfield (who wanders off topic), and Ms. Johnson (who records), might they reflect our troubles searching for the truth of our past that is often fraught with distraction, resistance, wandering, and lapses in documentation?
The production of The Minutes brings us to something we share as webs of complex and interconnected communities: a realization that our desire to tell the whole truth about our origin is, at best, aspirational. What we wind up telling may be kinda-true. But the whole truth, like the council minutes, has gone missing. Without sermonizing, Mr. Peel’s character faces us from the stage and asks us to consider what we would do when a hard truth surfaces: accept it, or continue to perpetuate some other story for future generations hoping no one will fact-check or dig too deeply. If we choose the latter, why? What is at stake for us?
And one last thing. As artists, we long for plays that expose societal ills, racism, homophobia, and all manner of injustices. The Minutes gives us that theatrical jolt. But does staging a piece that exposes the flaws in our origin stories wind up re-inscribing them? Does simply watching an entertaining play about damaging origin stories perpetuate that damage? Or, alternatively, might it call us to social action? I confess to thinking about this play almost daily since I first saw it and wonder how portrayals of racism risk turning on themselves by being just another way for theater goers like me to be comfortably shocked. Speaking for myself, do such depictions of racism in a small Midwestern town ultimately reveal the structures of my own implicit biases and prejudices that have nothing to do the “Others” so portrayed?
In the end, perhaps the value in the Steppenwolf’s nuanced and well-paced production of The Minutes lies in its exposure of how we tell origin stories, celebrate them, and critically (or not) evaluate their impact on others. In our times, given the complexity of the past and the uncertainty of the future, this production of The Minutes provides us a space to think about the missing minutes of our own stories, what effort it takes to find them, and the courage it may take to be accountable to what we discover. This ninety-minute play provides more than an afternoon of entertainment with a provocative twist at the end. The Steppenwolf production of Tracy Letts’s The Minutes provides a thoughtful challenge to face our origin stories and pass them along in such a way that has integrity and fosters healing and reconciliation to all whom those stories will touch.
Charles M. Rix, PhD is professor, playwright, and classical pianist who is an MFA candidate in Playwriting at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing. His research and writing focus on the intersection of art and sacred texts that advocate for justice and the betterment of humanity. His short play Midnight Roundup was performed at the Fall 2022 New York City Short Play Festival. His academic publications include chapters in the Oxford Handbook of Feminist Studies of the Hebrew Bible (2021) and the Bible, the Shoah, and the Art of Samuel Bak (2008).