photo by Liz Lauren
The title of Rebeca Gilman’s latest play, “Swing State,” suggests that it deals with politics. Although it is set in Wisconsin, which is a swing state, the different ideologies held by the two older characters are less important than the losses they have suffered.
The familiar homey set, (scenic design Todd Rosenthal) is Peg’s kitchen in rural Wisconsin and is filled with household objects, bowls and dishes. It feels comfortable and natural, but, quite frankly, I didn't pay attention to specific objects until the young deputy Dani (Anne. E. Thompson) admires a bowl in the kitchen and Peg (well-portrayed by Mary Beth Fisher) offers it to the young woman. For Dani, this offer raises a red flag. A recent graduate of the academy, she was told that people giving away their prized possessions are signs of depression.
However, Peg’s mental state is no surprise to the audience. Within the first moments of the play, she begins to bake zucchini bread and in the midst of mixing ingredients, she picks up a large butcher knife and holds threateningly near her own throat. This is obviously a woman in distress. A former guidance counselor, Peg is in mourning for her husband Jim, a biologist, who died a year earlier. Although they had no children, they watched over a young neighbor Ryan played by Bubba Weiler), who had a difficult childhood and had recently been released from jail for aggravated assault.
Peg shares the contents of her will with Ryan, who is understandably upset. Again she sounds suicidal and although she’s calm, she explains that her prairie land will remain untouched and tended by a conservation group, “There used to be millions of acres and millions of acres of it, all down the middle of the country, but now there’s only four per cent left.” She intends to bequeath her house, barn and three acres of land to Ryan.. Each of the two is troubled but they provide support for one another, often sharing meals.
When some of Peg’s husband’s tools and his rifle are stolen, she notifies the police, never dreaming that Ryan might be suspected. Yet the local sheriff Kris (a capable Kirsten Fitzgerald) immediately interrogates him. She dislikes him, holding him responsible for her own son’s OD from opioids.
Directed by Robert Fall, “Swing State” only has four characters and the prairie. The fourth character is Dani, who after her divorce, is persuaded to join law enforcement. She’s young and earnest and adds a note of softness in contrast to her gruff unyielding aunt, the Sheriff.
Peg and Kris obviously dislike one another and represent opposite sides politically. So when Kris notes that she was elected to protect the community, Peg is quick to say that she didn't vote for her. The time period is subtly referenced with brief mentions of Trump, the opioid epidemic and COVID.
When the play reaches its inevitable climax, the audience is not surprised. Sadly though, the resolution of the play is not totally satisfactory. The major characters remain apart but the sadness has just intensified. Once again Gilman relies on the prairie to offer solace and peace.
Fisher does a fine job. She’s believable, strong yet sympathetic. In contrast Fitzgerald is firm and unyielding. The two younger performers are less skilled. Weiler overacts a bit with his anxiety attacks and Thompson is too generic.
Years before, Peg and Jim bought the prairie land and it served as a haven for them. Later Ryan feels the same way, sharing his feelings with Dani. The land remains unspoiled but species are dying out. Playwright Gilman includes lengthy, often overly-long passages with descriptions of plants and birds,
Peg bemoans the vanishing species, the whip-poor-wills, chorus frogs and nighthawks. And the death of her husband is one more tragic loss for her. The politics in “Swing State”divide the characters but the sense of loss and sadness prove that they have more in common than they acknowledge. This should matter and draw them closer-but it doesn’t.
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane
New York, NY 10012