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posted: 11/5/2017 8:30 AM

Steppenwolf's 'The Minutes' is a play of its time

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  • Video: "The Minutes" trailer

  • William Petersen, center, rehearses for the world premiere of Tracy Letts' "The Minutes" alongside Jeff Sill, left, and fellow Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Kevin Anderson.

    William Petersen, center, rehearses for the world premiere of Tracy Letts' "The Minutes" alongside Jeff Sill, left, and fellow Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Kevin Anderson.
    Courtesy of Joel Moorman

  • Playwright Tracy Letts, left, and dramaturge Ed Sobel watch a rehearsal of Letts' new play, "The Minutes."

    Playwright Tracy Letts, left, and dramaturge Ed Sobel watch a rehearsal of Letts' new play, "The Minutes."
    Courtesy of Joel Moorman

 
 

Making something funny is way harder than making something important, says Steppenwolf Theatre artistic director Anna D. Shapiro.

She should know. The Tony Award-winning director has helmed both comedies and dramas, including Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning "August: Osage County," which premiered at Steppenwolf 10 years ago.

Shapiro and Letts, who collaborated for the first time 28 years ago when he acted in a show she directed, reunite for the premiere of Letts' latest, a political satire titled "The Minutes" beginning previews Thursday, Nov. 9.

"I loved it immediately," said Shapiro, a Steppenwolf ensemble member since 2005. "I laughed out loud, and I never laugh out loud at plays ... I smile loudly."

The cast includes fellow ensemble members Kevin Anderson, Ian Barford, Francis Guinan, James Vincent Meredith, Sally Murphy and William Petersen ("CSI: Crime Scene Investigation"), who plays a small-town mayor presiding over a city council meeting.

Steppenwolf Theatre artistic director Anna D. Shapiro directs a rehearsal of "The Minutes," the latest by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts.
Steppenwolf Theatre artistic director Anna D. Shapiro directs a rehearsal of "The Minutes," the latest by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts. - Courtesy of Joel Moorman

Letts was working on "The Minutes" well before the 2016 election, says Shapiro, who describes the play as political but nonpartisan.

"At the end, I was moved and I cried," Shapiro said. "I don't think there's a better experience than traveling from laughing to being moved to crying."

While comedy poses challenges, they're easier to accomplish alongside longtime colleagues.

"You have a shorthand with each other," said Shapiro of the cast, which includes several "August: Osage County" veterans. "It's not that you don't have to take care of each other. It's that you know how to take care of each other."

Most surprising is how tired everyone is, she says. The play spans 85 minutes and consists mostly of people sitting at tables talking.

"But when we finish rehearsal, we all need to take a nap," Shapiro joked.

Working with Letts and Shapiro has been fulfilling, said Petersen, who starred for nine seasons as Gil Grissom on CBS' "CSI."

"It's a dense little play and we have a lot of work to do to get it right," he said of "The Minutes," which marks the first time Petersen has appeared on Steppenwolf's stage since 2013's "Slowgirl."

Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members Ian Barford and Sally Murphy rehearse "The Minutes," the new play by Tracy Letts beginning previews Nov. 9.
Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members Ian Barford and Sally Murphy rehearse "The Minutes," the new play by Tracy Letts beginning previews Nov. 9. - Courtesy of Joel Moorman

"Actors are always looking to be in good hands, and we're in very good hands," he said, referring to Shapiro and Letts.

With a Broadway run already set for next year, expectations are high for "The Minutes," which marks Letts' seventh Steppenwolf premiere.

"To me it has a fantastic combination of spectacular humor and a very astute and penetrating analysis of white culture," said Barford. "We're hopeful it provokes discussion; I don't see how it couldn't."

But the playwright doesn't "beat anyone over the head" with one particular viewpoint, said Barford.

"The way it presents the conversation of who we are as a people is balanced," he said.

While Petersen declined to opine on its message, he did agree "The Minutes" is a play of its time.

"My job is not to decide what the audience should or should not come away with," he said. "My job is to present the play in the most honest way I can."

• • •

"The Minutes"

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; Nov. 9 through Dec. 31

Tickets: $20-$99

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