ALT's "The Minutes': When legend becomes fact, print the legend

It's not often that a trigger warning given by a play's director in advance comes close to being a spoiler. But that's just the start of specifics I need to avoid in writing about "The Minutes," the Tracy Letts play in one long act exploring city-council machinations in a prairie town with lots to hide.

This review's title, borrowing a famous movie line, comes about as close as I dare. My main business must be to praise the strong ensemble performance Chris Saunders generated from his cast on opening night Thursday at Phoenix Theatre's Russell Stage. "The Minutes" extends the impressive run of American Lives Theatre, of which Saunders is the founding artistic director.

Dentist and new councilor Peel works hard to extract the truth.
In its heyday in its old church home under the guidance of Bryan Fonseca, the Phoenix mounted an excellent production of Letts' most famous play, "August: Osage County." Two of his other plays, both presented down the street from that storied building, were Theatre on the Square productions with two of the most notable starring portrayals by men of the last decade, "Superior Donuts," with Ron Spencer, and "Killer Joe," with Ben Asaykwee.

Those plays' successor locally is an excellent ensemble piece, showing Letts' crisp, sometimes brutal manner of establishing characters and troweling in or out unsettling revelations. In the case of "The Minutes," though the members of the Big Cherry City Council are individualized, they face a collective problem: how to hold on to one of the few aspects of the town's identity that maintain civic pride. (The success of a local football team, the Savages, can't go far enough.)  The vexing problem that eventually explains the difficulty of shoring up chauvinism has to do with the mysteriously missing minutes of the council's last meeting.

Letts has set up plausibly the reason that one council member doesn't understand the problem.  He's a
newcomer to the town, thanks to his wife's roots there, as well as being newly elected and eager for public service. Mr. Peel (Josh Ramsey) missed the last meeting because of his mother's funeral. Every other one of his colleagues, plus the mayor and the clerk, has a pet cause, obsession, or idiosyncrasy. Together, they are a stone wall erected against Peel finding out what happened to the minutes, as well as to councilor Mr. Carp (Charles Goad). 

The going gets rough at a city council meeting.

You may find your nerves worn to a frazzle rooting for Peel to get to the bottom of things. I was so happy not to have had any advance knowledge of this play. The shock of discovery was all the keener, and I was thoroughly caught up in the bizarre surrealism of the latter part of "The Minutes."

Scanning down the list of production credits before the start, for instance, I became curious as I watched the oafish quarreling in the early scenes to learn what choreographer Mariel Greenlee would have to contribute: it turned out to be a dazzling element of the play's climax. Also essential to the mounting effect of Carp's searing indictment of the council as it wrangles over support for the town's annual Heritage Festival were brief, repeated power interruptions because of a weak electrical grid (credit Tim Dick's lighting design). The town's moral infrastructure is in bad shape, too. 

It would be tedious to send kudos to all the actors based on how they filled their roles, and I would rather not take away from the ensemble triumph of this production. Everything about each odd duck, especially in dialogue laboring over the stink of the local secret, seemed apt. The comic zest of most of the play was rich, with as many lost or dangling verbal connections flapping in the wind as in the turmoil of Ionesco's "Rhinoceros." Besides those mentioned, the players that make "The Minutes" work so well are Stephen Roger Kitts II, Susannah Quinn, Ian Cruz, Paige Scott, Raymond Kester, Scot Greenwell, Tristan Ross, Suzanne Fleenor, and Len Mozzi.

[Photos by Indy Ghost Light]


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