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Swing State

Theatre Review by James Wilson - September 17, 2023

Mary Beth Fisher and Bubba Weiler
Photo by Liz Lauren
Thematically, Rebecca Gilman's Swing State (in Audible Theater's presentation of the Goodman Theatre production) is a sprawling, multi-issue play. Set in August 2021 when much of the country was emerging from pandemic isolation but as new variants (remember Delta?) limited full normalcy, the drama addresses many of the most pressing issues of our times. Climate change, the opioid epidemic, hardened political divisiveness, suicide, police misconduct, and ecological extinction caused by mass globalization are just some of the topics touched on in the 105-minute, intermissionless play.

Yet, miraculously, within the insoluble contemporary and existential morass, Gilman has crafted a profoundly human and deeply moving portrait of four psychologically damaged characters muddling through a world in chaos. Directed by Robert Falls, the tightly constructed play moves deftly between comedy and tragedy, and only rarely do the narrative developments betray the writer's hand at work.

Taking place in one of the few remaining prairies in Wisconsin, the action of Swing State is confined to the open kitchen and living room areas of an old, Midwestern farmhouse. (The scenic design by Todd Rosenthal perfectly captures the solidness of the home, which is adorned with generations of accumulated furniture and bric-a-brac. The set is nicely complemented by Eric Southern's moody lighting.) The title, of course, refers to the widely publicized battleground state, which helped Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016, but it also refers to the shifting emotional circumstances of the characters, who are all dealing with the aftershocks of personal trauma.

The farmhouse belongs to Peg (Mary Beth Fisher), a former high-school guidance counselor and recent widow. As is obvious from the first few moments of the play while she is distractedly making zucchini bread, Peg is struggling with grief, and she contemplates using the sharp knife on herself rather than for chopping the walnuts in front of her. She finds some solace, though, in her motherly care of Ryan (Bubba Weiler), a young man in his twenties who spent time in prison for brutally assaulting a man in a barroom brawl. Now sober and driving a bread truck, Ryan still has occasional and debilitating panic attacks, and only Peg, it seems, can talk him through them.

When Peg reports a cache of missing tools and an old gun from her property, she is visited by the local police force, including Sheriff Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerald), a haughty and unpleasant officer, and her deputy, the kindly and dutiful Dani (Anne E. Thompson), who happens to be the niece of the sheriff. (Evelyn Danner's costumes beautifully show the officiousness of the officers through their carefully pressed and constraining uniforms compared with the relaxed and loose clothing of Peg and Ryan.) Both women are also carrying their own burdensome emotional baggage, the effects of which are evident in their work lives. It turns out, the investigation into the whereabouts of the vanished objects provides the catalyst for revelations and betrayals.

Recreating the roles they performed at the Goodman in the fall of 2022, the cast of four offer finely etched, lived-in performances. At the center of the play, Fisher is astonishing. She simultaneously imbues her character with compassion for others, particularly Ryan and Dani, and generalized anger toward people, including those who support Trump and the inconsiderate masses who seem bent on destroying nature.

As Ryan, Weiler is suitably enigmatic. As an ex-con, Weiler keeps a seething anger closely in check, and while Ryan is generally likeable and boyish, he is not completely trustworthy either. Fitzgerald is tasked with the most difficult part of making the stereotypically bad cop Kris into more than just a plot motivator, and to her credit, she succeeds. Thompson is a warm and sympathetic presence as a character who joined the police force after nearly succumbing to crippling depression.

The play's ending is a little too pat, and Gilman's attempts to bring order to a world in utter disarray doesn't quite ring true. Still, Swing State shows that human empathy and environmental conscientiousness can take root in places we least expect.

Swing State
Through October 21, 2023
Audible Theater
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: