The Minutes

Steppenwolf Theatre Company brought out the big guns for the world premiere of “The Minutes,” the latest from Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning ensemble member Tracy Letts. The playwright is a bonafide literary superstar, and the first production of his new work is rewarded with a commensurate cast.

I’ve reviewed 126 shows for EDGE Media Network in the Chicago market, and feel blessed to have witnessed this particular mix of talent sharing a stage. With direction from Steppenwolf’s Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro, six ensemble members and other well-known performers unite to deliver a hilarious and menacing look at the political dynamics of a fictional city council. Think “Parks and Recreation” with a side helping of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” “The Minutes” is quirky, current and frightening. Among other takeaway thoughts, I was left wondering what board of directors groupthink experience left Tracy Letts so jaded.

In press materials, the play is described as “a scathing new comedy about small-town politics and real-world power that exposes the ugliness behind some of our most closely-held American narratives while asking each of us what we would do to keep from becoming history’s losers.” Just a few weeks removed from Columbus Day, and on the cusp of the Christmas season and its white-centric Jesus narrative, “The Minutes” forces audiences to reckon with the historical fairy tales that have always buttressed America’s claims to Manifest Destiny.

What a fine group of actors Steppenwolf has assembled to tell this story. Kevin Anderson, Ian Bradford, Francis Guinan, James Vincent Meredith, Sally Murphy and William Petersen are the ensemble members drafted to “The Minutes'” dream team. Each embodies a small-town government caricature, starting with his or her unsubtle name.

Guinan for example, plays Mr. Oldfield, the council’s longest tenured member, and on the surface, a doddering man with parking space entitlement issues. Murphy’s Ms. Matz is a ditzy, disorganized young woman who shows up to meetings under the influence. Petersen’s Mayor Superba is a fittingly puffed up champion of ceremony and by-law.

During the first half of the 100-minute production (no intermission), these characters and others are played for laughs. And they get them. The chemistry between the seasoned performers is evident and satisfying. Seating Penny Slusher’s Ms. Innes next to Guinan’s Mr. Oldfield is a particularly directorial inspired choice. The pair of weary, disapproving elders have some of the best lines, and the give and take energy between Slusher and Guinan yields giggles even when their characters are silent.

Letts allows no pause between the plays farcical first half and the darkness that descends onstage in the second. Audience members who attended Tuesday night’s premiere were helpfully cautioned by Steppenwolf staff members to use the bathroom or take a second drink into the theater. No intermission means no time to catch one’s breath before the action takes a darker turn. When “Parks and Recreation” becomes “The Lottery.”

It would be an extra disservice in this case to reveal any spoilers, because the journey, however ultimately creepy, is its own reward. Suffice it to say the dramatic tension unravels through the municipal cipher of meeting minutes. And I can only thank the universe for allowing me to live long enough to see Francis Guinan dance Haka.

There are a few quibbles related to the script itself. Ms. Johnson’s herd mentality doesn’t jibe with the acts of record keeping resistance that propel the script toward its conclusion. A fine performance from Brittany Burch renders the deus ex machina diversion forgivable. And at the play’s end, Cliff Chamberlain’s Mr. Peel doesn’t count five offstage beats before re-emerging as a completely different person. I’d like to believe total character capitulation would be a somewhat more deliberate process.

But as I mentioned, these are mere quibbles and won’t prevent audience members from carrying “The Minutes” with them long after the curtain closes. This is an important work and theater lovers are unlikely to see this combination of artistry and talent again anytime soon. Any one of these actors can — and has — carried a production on his or her own. As a team, they are simply amazing.

“The Minutes” runs through January 7, 2018 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website

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HIR

Amy Morton (Paige) and Em Grosland (Max)

Described in press materials as “a subversive comedy by celebrated playwright, actor, singer-songwriter and performance artist Taylor Mac,” I must own to feeling rather humorless as I exited the Chicago premiere of “HIR” this week. The original, 21st Century take on the dysfunctional family trope offers a realistic emotional experience for Steppenwolf Theater audiences. The trials of a household are usually hilarious, and heartbreaking, in(un)equal portions.

As the curtain rises, we meet Paige (Amy Morton). At first blush she seems to embrace a “woke,” flexible and free approach to marital relations, housekeeping and child rearing. Rules are made to be broken. In fact they must be in order to counteract a stultifying, regressive patriarchal society that values order and ownership above expression. Paige’s home is full of costumes, culture, whimsy and loving chaos.

Or is it?

Paige’s pseudo-liberation from the tyranny of a brutal marriage is gained not through determined agency or death. Rather her new world order is brought about by a simple quirk of destiny that sets off a linear regression for Paige and her husband Arnold (the monumentally talented Francis Guinan). They are a couple of children — Arnold in a cognitive and motor skill sense, Paige in a bitter, retributive and controlling expression of shifting power dynamics.

Into this landscape walks Isaac (Ty Olwin), a dishonorably discharged Afghanistan vet whose issues both predate, and are simultaneously exacerbated by a three-year absence from his family. Broken communication on both sides have left the family’s troubled history frozen in time for the PTSD-afflicted Isaac. His father is a bully. His mother is a work hausfrau and his sister looks to him for leadership. These truths and the horrors of the battlefield are what he knows. There is predictability in familiar discomfort.

The physical timeline of the production’s two hour and 15-minute run (with one intermission) spans one very long day. One in which a newly returned Isaac must adjust to a stroke-addled father, drugged into further decommission by a mother who disguises revenge as a form of experimental enlightenment. Isaac’s sister is now Max (Em Grosland), a precocious, transgendered teen who also serves as the namesake of “HIR.”

The dialogue includes a running discussion, replete with helpful chalkboard diagramming, of gender fluidity. “HIR” is the pronoun that bridges the male/female gap, welcoming and including everyone occupying space outside of staid, heteronormative boxes. The education is held up by Paige as detached and redemptive, and yet her rules for living 2.0 are perversely rigid and uncompromising. Where once Arnold represented the excesses of a fragile, yet dominantly violent male ego, Paige is the id run amok in one lane. Cleanliness, ownership and categories must be rejected wholesale.

What exactly either ideology has to do with the living, growing Max, searching for himself and establishing principles amidst psychological warfare is deliberately unclear. At one point, Isaac asks his sibling (insensitively) if his gender transition is driven by Paige’s anarchy. A more prescient question for all of the central characters, as well as the audience: Are any of our values and belief systems the product of enlightened free will? Or are they driven by history, environment and rebellion?

There are laughs aplenty sprinkled throughout the script. The different challenges confronting each character offer fertile ground for absurdity. All four performances are nuanced, complicated and fully formed work that defy categorization.

Yet I suspect few audience members will be chuckling during and after the production’s final scene. Mild spoiler alert: Max is the only one left standing. We’re left with the impression that Paige, Arnold and Isaac’s stories could only ever have ended one way. “HIR” journey has just begun — and is likely to be endured alone.

“HIR” runs through August 20 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.