Editor’s Note: This review contains plot spoilers
At its best, theater is an art form that, in the same breath, provokes delight and debate in equal measure. So far this season, Thunder River Theater Company (TRTC) has demonstrated mastery in both.
In September, TRTC opened its season with “Rabbit Hole,” a play that probes the lives of the victims of an intensely personal, singular tragedy. By contrast, this month’s production of “The Minutes” examines a much more familiar calamity of a significantly larger scale, but focuses more on its perpetrators than on its victims.
Distilled to its structural core, “The Minutes” depicts a city council meeting in the fictional Middle American town of Big Cherry. For 90 minutes, the council members posture and argue, the mayor presides, and the clerk takes every word down in her notes.
Despite the meeting’s apparent normality, two notable absences alert the audience to the fact that all may not be as it seems. First is the empty chair of one Mr. Carp. Second is the lack of the minutes from the meeting prior.
The only council member bothered by these facts is Mr. Peel, played by TRTC newcomer James O’Hagan Murphy. Even for a local politician, Murphy’s Mr. Peel is young and inexperienced, nervously unaware of how impractical his ideals truly are.
The rest of the council members wear varying shades of political savvy, from the stoic traditionalist Ms. Innes, played by Shelly Safir Marolt, to the well-connected and unapologetic Mr. Assalone, played by Lee Sullivan. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is Mr. Oldfield, the council’s oldest and longest serving member, played by TRTC veteran Bob Moore. Moore’s comedic timing is impeccable, and his energy keeps the meeting up tempo from the start.
Kristin Carlson, William LeDent, as well as TRTC debutants Diego Ramses González Sandoval and Michael Banks round out the rest of the council, forming a convincing ensemble equally capable of moments of physical power and eerie subtlety.
Leading the meeting is Mayor Superba, played by an assured and charismatic Mike Monroney. Throughout it all, Ms. Johnson, the town clerk, played by Gabrielle Bailes, is a study in calm, attentive professionalism.
As the meeting moves from an argument over politically correct semantics, to a speech in support of the town’s flagship festival, to debates about a costly new construction project, Mr. Peel continues to ask his colleagues about Mr. Carp and the missing minutes. Eventually, his persistence and attention to detail pay off, and the council reveals much more than perhaps Mr. Peel bargained for.
The resulting climactic scene gives the floor to the ever-absent Mr. Carp, played by Erik Sandvold, whose soliloquy marks the most truthful and grounded moment in the play. Mr. Carp’s words are not only a plea to his fellow council members, but if the audience is truly listening, they pose a series of uncomfortable questions to our society at large.
What do we do with the written record when it reveals ugly truths about the choices we have made and the stories we tell about the past? How do we contend with history when its conclusions paint us in blood? Can morality exist without honesty? What is the value of comfort in the absence of morality?
The power of that moment is a testament to the direction of Missy Moore and assistant director Emily Henley. In order for Mr. Carp’s speech to make such an impact, Moore and Henley had to work backwards to find the right beats, each of which sets off the next to create a profoundly impactful crescendo. To begin with an argument about a newly vacant parking spot and build to an exposition of the hypocrisies of settler colonialism is no small feat.
The fictional town of Big Cherry is not Carbondale, but enough parallels exist to make “The Minutes” required viewing for our voting public. The conversations that might follow such a play are vital to the moral well-being of our town, our valley, and our country.
TRTC’s production of “The Minutes” has seven performances remaining: Nov. 16, 17, 18, 24, 25 at 7:30pm, and Sundays Nov. 19 and 26 at 2pm. Visit www.thunderrivertheatre.com for tickets.