SWING STATE Finds Perfect Drama In Shaky Territory — Review
Wisconsin’s prairie ecosystem, we learn early on in Rebecca Gilman’s emotionally thunderous Swing State, is under existential threat. Its inhabitants can hardly put up a fight against invasive attacks: bats are developing fungal diseases, frogs are dying from toxic runoff, nighthawks have lost their prey to insecticide. Set during the Delta variant era of the pandemic, its humans aren’t faring too well either.
Directed by Robert Falls and transferring with its original cast from its premiere production last year at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, this near-perfect play is not so much a barnstormer as a sunset barnburner; you’re too caught up in its scintillating orange hues (materialized through Eric Southern’s lighting on Todd Rosenthal’s perfect farmhouse set) to realize the fires blazing at the Minetta Lane Theatre.
Peg (Mary Beth Fisher), who sits alone atop 40 acres of untamed land, must deal with a lack of infrastructural nature conservation while managing her own shaky well-being. Having lost her husband only a few months before Covid broke out, we meet her as she considers suicide with haunting, detached ambivalence. Fisher crafts an indelible portrayal of mournful desperation with steadfast emotional acuity; subtle and considered, but a fully realized depiction of grief far from the somber, underplayed deadness we’ve been sold in recent dramas.
Her designs are soon halted when she finds a trove of his antique tools, including a prized rifle, missing from their shed. As weathered as she is embattled, Sheriff Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerald, in sturdily nuanced bad-cop mode) casts quick aspersions on Ryan (Bubba Weiler), the twenty-something former alcoholic and convict who helps Peg tend the land. Her niece, the township’s new deputy Dani (Anne E. Thompson, whose performance conjures the phrase ‘steel magnolia’), finding her feet after a ruinous divorce, is still too trusting to not ask a few questions first.
As the small town investigation proceeds and loyalties come into question, the way each of their woes branches onto another’s reveals the country’s turn from individualism to hopeless survivalism. But, despite the rather unrelated title, Gilman resists easy characterization, and the play is far from a political screed; rather an apolitical shout from America’s core, pleading for calm.
From Peg, who canceled her subscription to the local paper after it endorsed Trump’s presidential bid, to the opposite side of the spectrum, long-arm-of-the-law Kris, she imbues each character with a Midwest fortitude that prevents any of them from caving into their vulnerabilities, even as the ground they stand on crumbles beneath them. She also affords them a refreshing dark humor, as when Peg half-jokes about a kamikaze walking into a mask-less bar.
Through her deft cross-pollination of tragedy, character study, and old-fashioned drama, what emerges is a moving portrait of quiet lives made to growl loudly into an abyss encroaching from all sides, and a call for remembrance of the comfort we might find in one another.
Swing State is in performance through October 21, 2023 at the Minetta Lane Theatre on Minetta Lane in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.