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Theater review: The Minutes

Rebecca Maxey and Michael Bond in "The Minutes"
Lauren Mow / The GhostLight Theatre
Rebecca Maxey and Michael Bond in "The Minutes"

The GhostLight Theatre recently opened its production of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize nominated play, “The Minutes.” WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

Who controls the sacred narratives of American history? What are the stakes in the struggle to control them? And how does that struggle manifest itself in local small-town politics of present-day America?

These are some of the weighty questions addressed by playwright Tracy Letts in the laugh-filled, thought-provoking, and sometimes startling production now playing at The GhostLight Theatre in Benton Harbor.

Although the questions above seem weighty, director Nate Cohen handles the otherwise mundane and nit-picky proceedings of the weekly Big Cherry Town Council meeting with a light touch. Through comic takes and careful timing of line delivery, Cohen’s cast of 12 finds humor in the self-absorbed blustering and petty complaints of council members. Mr. Oldfield, for instance, delightfully portrayed by Bill Klein, is so blind to the needs of others in the meeting that he all but forbids the use of the word “bathroom.”

Similarly Carol Sizer, as Ms. Innis, delivers a funny but tedious, rambling, incomprehensible speech about the crises of confidence that has descended on this deliberative body, as it considers the community’s most important event: The seemingly innocuous Annual Big Cherry Heritage Festival.

New to both the council and town, Michael Bond, as Mr. Peel, shines as the young relentless interrogator of council proposals, actions, and policy. Understandably, he has many questions about the way things are done in Big Cherry and on the council.

His searching queries are directed towards the whereabouts of the minutes from the last meeting, which he missed; the reason for the recently vacated post of former councilman, Mr. Carp; and the much-esteemed story of the legendary American Cavalry hero, credited with saving local settlers in 1872.

To answer the latter question, Peel’s antagonist, Mayor Superba, played with cunning and control by Rebecca Maxey, leads council members in a naïve reenactment of the 19th Century conflict between town settlers and local Native Americans.

As the Mayor narrates, council members portray armed soldiers, their horses, local farmers, and screaming women and children rescued by cavalry from the savage quote unquote “Indians.” The laughable production values and sound effects of this show within the show, are appropriately on the level of a 4th grade “make-believe” pageant, learned, as we later discover, by every child of Big Cherry in Sunday School.

This ridiculous and hilarious presentation is the comic highpoint of “The Minutes.”

However, the stern commitment and conviction with which the characters portrayed embrace their roles in the town’s sacred narrative, serve as a warning to any who would dispute this agreed-upon story of the town’s founding. This includes Councilman Peel.

Peel’s other questions are not so easily answered. And the answers are more threatening as council discussions begin to take on a serious tone. This measured and carefully calculated major turn provides Tracy Lett’s script and Cohen’s production with the power to elicit audible gasps and noticeable moans from the attentive audience.

After Peel presses his case further, the Mayor allows the long-awaited minutes from the prior council meeting to be heard. As Council assistant Ms. Johnson, Madison Mosher, reads the minutes, a shift in the lights indicates a flashback to the previous meeting.

In this flashback, Peel is now replaced on stage by the character of Mr. Carp, heretofore missing from the play’s present action. The reason for Carp’s recent disappearance from the council and its records soon becomes apparent.

Michael Riggenbach plays the firebrand Carp, who delivers damning historical evidence in this brief scene from the prior meeting. He claims that the town’s narrative is not only fictional, but serves as a blatant cover up for a horrible incident that few will want to acknowledge, and none can celebrate.

Because of Carp’s challenge, the annual Big Cherry Heritage Festival and all that it stands for, including prosperity and a secure future for the children, at least for the moment, seem in jeopardy.

The not-so-carefully veiled threats to Carp from the council’s enforcer, Mr. Assalone, played with ominous intent by Doug Peterson, still hang in the air as the lights fade and then come back up on present tense action and the still empty chair of now former councilman Carp.

In view of the story told by the minutes, the consequences of Peel’s choice to leave the council or remain on it are clear, as are the answers to all of his questions. The stunning and unforgettable ritualized conclusion to the council meeting helps to inform the decision that lies before councilman Peel.

Like many Americans approaching the election this fall, I often try to make sense of the divided political landscape in our country. I search the news and commentary for insights that help explain this divide.

I can honestly say that to date no news story, no talking head, no commentator has provided insights as revelatory or as vivid as those evident in the dramatic clash of sacred narratives now presented onstage in “The Minutes” at The GhostLight Theatre in Benton Harbor.

A former station manager of WMUK, Gordon Bolar is now the station's theater reviewer.