Theater Review: Shaker Bridge’s ‘The Minutes’ illustrates value of unvarnished truth

The cast of Shaker Bridge Theatre's production of

The cast of Shaker Bridge Theatre's production of "The Minutes," includes, from left, Katie Kitchel, Tommy Crawford, Raphael Peacock, Scott Sweatt, Eric Zengota, Jim Sterling, Will Moore, Elizabeth Durkee, Kim Meredith and James Goodwin Rice. Caitlin Gomes — Courtesy Shaker Bridge Theatre

Mr. Carp, played by Richard Noble, addresses his fellow town council members in Shaker Bridge Theatre's production of

Mr. Carp, played by Richard Noble, addresses his fellow town council members in Shaker Bridge Theatre's production of "The Minutes." Photo Courtesy Shaker Bridge Theatre

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-12-2024 6:01 PM

Modified: 03-12-2024 7:58 PM


Having spent untold hours in selectboard and city council meeting rooms around the Upper Valley, I’ve often joked that it would be more fun to write about the meetings held in them as if they were theater, rather than just the mostly humdrum work of local government.

But now that the American actor and playwright Tracy Letts has set a play in a town council meeting room, I’m not so sure. “The Minutes,” currently in production at Shaker Bridge Theatre in White River Junction, earned Tony and Pulitzer nominations after its debut in 2017. Because it’s theater, and because it’s set not in New England but in Letts’ native heartland — he grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma — the meeting of the town council in Big Cherry, state unnamed, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

That’s mostly a good thing. Shaker Bridge’s production is sharp — well acted, well directed and technically proficient. But “The Minutes” carries a heavier moral freight than any play that starts as a comedy can bear. It’s a big, heavy American story, not a small-town one, and Letts’ mix of mockery and the macabre lands like a sucker punch.

The scene is a closed council meeting in what looks like a down-at-the-heels burg. Why the meeting isn’t open to the public wouldn’t be clear to anyone who’s ever attended a small-town government meeting, so it’s closed for art’s sake, which isn’t a great reason. Up for discussion are such topics as a proposed accessible fountain in the town square and a spectacle called “Lincoln Smackdown” that’s under consideration for the town’s fading Heritage Festival.

But the undercurrent, brought up by Mr. Peel, who missed the previous council meeting, is the mysterious absence of one of the council members, Mr. Carp. Peel can’t understand where the minutes of the previous meeting have gotten to, and is puzzled why no one will explain Carp’s absence. Peel is new to the town, where his wife grew up, and to the council.

As his name gratingly indicates, Peel is the character who’s going to expose Big Cherry’s soft, fruity underbelly. Most of the characters are so named. Oldfield is a geezer, and Breeding is a golfing toady who sucks up to Mayor Superba. Letts, who probably is best known as an actor and for “August, Osage County,” his 2008 Pulitzer-winning play later made into a film, must write with a pen in one hand and a hammer in the other. If the names are meant to tell us that we shouldn’t take these people seriously, then Letts is sabotaging his own work.

These broad characterizations provide the humor, such as it is, of the play’s first half. By design, “The Minutes” never lets the audience get comfortable with proceedings. At Friday’s opening night performance, laughter was sporadic.

In a brief announcement before the show, Grant Neale, Shaker Bridge’s producing artistic director, and the director of this production, said “The Minutes” featured the nonprofit theater company’s largest-ever cast. All 11 actors shouldered their share of the load.

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As Peel, Tommy Crawford projects the dogged sincerity of someone who believes in the power of truth. And Richard Noble brings a bracing gravitas to the lone scene in which he plays Carp. As the leading proponent of “Lincoln Smackdown,” and graced with many of the play’s most nonsensical, and therefore funniest lines, Raphael Peacock delivers as Mr. Blake, who’s also the lone character of color in the play.

“Blake, I never know exactly what you’re talking about,” Peel tells him just before the start of the council meeting. After a bit more gnomic weirdness, Peel says, “You’ve been drinking,” to which Blake replies, “What’s your point?”

To single out one other member of the cast, Jim Sterling, a Hanover High and Dartmouth College graduate who’s based at New York’s Axis Theater Co., channels the imperiousness of Letts the actor as Mayor Superba. I looked it up later to find that Letts played the role in the Broadway production in 2022. Sitting at the center of the action, Sterling exudes an ugly, brooding authority.

As the meeting goes on, council members try to stand on principle, but nearly every assertion is ridiculous and self-absorbed. Peel can’t figure out what’s going on, and expresses confusion at the origin of the town’s heritage festival. His fellow council members, and the tightly wound recording clerk Ms. Johnson (Katie Kitchel) enact an absurd origin story, in which a brave soldier fights off marauding Indians to save a kidnapped girl. “Here is your future,” the soldier allegedly proclaimed, and so the town’s governors proclaim it, too.

Eventually, Peel finds out why the minutes of the previous meeting were suppressed, and the play turns from dark humor to humorless darkness. History, the true account, as we know all too well, isn’t pretty.

And that’s the point of “The Minutes” — the need for a true, agreed upon record of events. When we get agreement, but not truth, or vice versa, we’re in trouble. That’s the case for small towns and polyglot nations alike.

“I don’t know anyone,” Carp says in his lone scene, “who wouldn’t benefit from some unvarnished truth.”

If that’s what you’re after, this is a bracing night of theater.

Shaker Bridge Theatre’s production of “The Minutes” continues through March 24 in the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. For tickets ($18-40) or more information, go to shakerbridgetheatre.org or call 802-281-6848.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.