Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor’s plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
(l to r) Jeff Still, Danny McCarthy, Cliff Chamberlain, William Petersen and James Vincent Meredith. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Conor McShane
It is said that civilization is a lie agreed upon, a fiction we all buy into in order to continue to enjoy the comforts and privileges that lie affords us. America has a number of ugly truths underlying its prosperity: slavery, land grabs, and the slaughter of Native Americans, to name a few. The question remains: are those of us who enjoy the safety of a “civilized” society also implicit in its violent history, simply by living in the world that violence helped create? The Minutes, the new play from beloved Chicago author Tracy Letts, seems to argue that to some extent, we are. Receiving its world premiere under the direction of Steppenwolf Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro, Letts’ latest is a sharp satire of local politics that, over the course of its fleet 100 minutes, becomes something much more sobering.
Set in the fictional (as far as I know) town of Big Cherry, the sort of community that could exist anywhere in the country, The Minutes takes us into a meeting of the local city council, presided over by Mayor Superba (William Petersen), convening in a government building with old, faulty wiring (the exquisitely detailed set is by David Zinn). Mr. Peel (Cliff Chamberlain), the newest member of the council, is returning from some time off for his mother’s funeral to find that fellow councilman Mr. Carp (Ian Barford) is missing, having been relieved of his position. That leaves a lingering question in the air as the rest of the council, including Mr. Assalone (Jeff Still), Mr. Hanratty (Danny McCarthy), Ms. Innes (Penny Slusher), Mr. Blake (James Vincent Meredith), Ms. Matz (Sally Murphy), Mr. Breeding (Kevin Anderson), and Mr. Oldfield (Francis Guinan, scoring most of the night’s biggest laughs), along with clerk Ms. Johnson (Brittany Burch) to carry on with the week’s business. But Peel won’t drop the subject of his fallen comrade, and before long the true nature of Carp’s dismissal — and of the story at the core of Big Cherry’s civic identity — is revealed.
One of the strongest threads of The Minutes, and one that doesn’t fully come to light until the play’s later moments, is the idea of history as a tool which can obscure the truth as much as highlight it. Big Cherry’s history contains a troubling amount of Native erasure, rewriting the story of the town’s founding to obscure the violence and displacement at its core. This production is perfectly timed around Thanksgiving, that holiday which carries its own revisionist myth about the relationship between Natives and white settlers. The play argues that our narratives are central to our identity, and that those in power are able to control the stories we use to define ourselves as a country and as a people. We can see a powerful corollary to our current “fake news” age, in which the truth becomes harder and harder, if not impossible, to pin down. Big Cherry is one small town, but its story could easily stand in for the nation’s as a whole.
Despite its turn into heavier subject matter, The Minutes starts out as a zippy and often hilarious satire on small-town life and politics, with its city council members frequently devolving into petty infighting and opportunism. Letts’ script nails the ways in which officials — on a national level or a local one — often talk circles all the way around a subject before actually getting to the point, and the cast more than ably sells the play’s sillier aspects, with Guinan’s clueless old-timer being a particular standout. A couple of moments referencing sexual harassment and assault are played for dark laughs, but can’t help but feel ill-considered in the wake of the seemingly endless scandals coming out of Hollywood and Washington. It’s an important and all-too-common reality for women in pretty much every workplace, but it’s an issue that deserves to be handled with a bit more care than it’s given here.
The play’s tonal shift from generally silly political satire into one that’s much darker could have been jarring, but it works here as a way to lull the audience into a false sense of security before pulling the rug out from under us. There are hints that something darker exists just beneath the wood-paneled surface of the set, from a growing office ant problem to the water damage at the edges (just one example of the level of detail in Zinn’s design) to flickering lights (designed by Brian MacDevitt) and glib arguments against accessibility for the disabled. The play contends that that darkness exists beneath all of us, beneath the collective lies we tell ourselves to continue benefitting from its consequences. When presented with the uncomfortable truth, we are given a choice: to reckon with it, or to keep living in blissful ignorance. Ignorance may be bliss, but the truth is always lurking just below the surface, waiting to be found.
THE MINUTES runs through December 31st at Steppenwolf. More info at steppenwolf.org.