Direct from its critically acclaimed debut at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, the New York premiere of Swing State, written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Rebecca Gilman, directed by Tony Award winner Robert Falls, and featuring the original cast of four reprising their roles, is now playing a limited engagement at Audible’s Minetta Lane Theatre, where it will be recorded and released globally at a later date as an audio play on the Audible digital platform.
Set in the summer of 2021, at an ordinary home on the prairie in rural Wisconsin (traditionally a swing state, with voters wavering in their party allegiances in consecutive close elections), the play is not about politics, as the title would suggest, but the changing mental and emotional state of its characters, which swings from deeply depressed and despondent to an occasional glimmer of hope. Please note that the production comes with a warning: it contains gun shots, violence, and themes of self-harm and suicide, and is not suggested for young audiences under the age of fourteen.
Following the sudden death of her husband Jim a year ago, the grieving Peg continues to cook for two, keeps his ashes in a box on the kitchen counter, and remains dedicated to preserving the nature and wildlife they both loved, which is gradually disappearing from their land as a result of human encroachment. She also maintains a supportive relationship with Ryan, the troubled young man they knew since his childhood, helped through difficult times (including his alcohol abuse and three-year imprisonment), and hired to do odd jobs on their property. He stops by often (the only one she let into the house during the pandemic), she prepares food for him, he washes his dishes, they talk, complain, and argue, and share an abiding concern for one another.
But when her late husband’s vintage tools and rifle are stolen from the barn, she calls the local sheriff Kris (a woman with a personal aversion to Ryan, whom she blames for her son’s fatal drug overdose) and deputy Dani (Kris’s recently divorced niece) to help find the missing items, unintentionally triggering a dramatic chain of events, questions of trust, and erratically swinging states of mind and actions on the part of all four.
The play touches on a range of hot topics in today’s world, from COVID, mental health, and mourning, to the environment, the opioid crisis, guns, and police brutality. Falls directs with an eye on the slow reveal, building to an explosive climax, interspersed with touches of humor to lighten the dark and heavy themes. And the cast is expert in delivering it all, in their empathetic portrayals of the distressed characters.
Mary Beth Fisher embodies the unending sorrow, emptiness, and despair of Peg, who is preparing her will (for which she is called out by Ryan as a “Fuckin’ ray of sunshine. That’s what you are”) and only seems happy when remembering Jim, their shared love of nature (in which she is extremely knowledgeable), and collecting the seeds that will ensure its survival. She also finds purpose in the mutual care she gives to and receives from Ryan and their emotional investment in each other’s lives, which alleviates some of the loneliness they feel.
Bubba Weiler delivers a fully rounded portrayal of Ryan, thoroughly inhabiting the complexity of his damaged psyche and rough exterior (as heard in his constant foul language and f-bombs and seen in his inhaling of the soup Peg made for him, hunched over at the kitchen table), the effects of his problematic childhood, time served in jail, and dissatisfaction with his work as a trucker, the severe panic attacks that plague him (from which Peg talks him down), his fond memories of Jim, the land, and the bird songs he learned on the prairie, his fear of losing Peg, whom he makes promise not to die, and his opening up about his good intentions to the rookie Dani, played with soft-spoken unsurety and apparent amiability by Anne E. Thompson. She is the good cop (or is she?), in contrast to Kirsten Fitzgerald’s tough-talking (and sometimes laughable) bad cop Kris, determined to satisfy her vendetta against Ryan, despite Peg’s objections.
Todd Rosenthal’s set creates the everyday look and feel of an average house, with a full kitchen and library that bespeak Peg’s main interests and activities, and lighting by Eric Southern that signals the times of day, with a sudden blackout of the story’s climactic shocker. Evelyn M. Danner’s familiar costumes define the positions of the characters, as do the all-important props by Alice Maguire that drive the narrative, enhanced with Richard Woodbury’s realistic sound and original music.
Following the devastating culmination of the growing tension (with fight direction by Nick Sandys), Gilman’s feel-good ending seems forced and unbelievable, and completely out of character with the personalities and tragic developments that preceded it. Unfortunately, it adds a false note to an otherwise impactful narrative that addresses serious problems in our society, for which there is no such easy solution or happy resolution.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, without intermission.
Swing State plays through Saturday, October 28, 2023, at Audible’s Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, NYC. For tickets (priced at $86-111, plus fees), go online. Masks are encouraged but not required.