Review: Playwright Rebecca Gilman Subtly Reflects the National Mood in Swing State
Gilman's pithy new work, starring Mary Beth Fisher, is having its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre.
Rebecca Gilman's new play is extremely well-crafted and easy to admire, but more difficult to like. Its four characters all are problematic and emotionally damaged to varying degrees, stewing over why life has been unfair to them. The fact that we understand the characters doesn't make them less prickly.
Like several previous Gilman plays, Swing State is set in contemporary southwest Wisconsin, populated with semirural folks sometimes called "flyovers." Indeed, Wisconsin is bedrock America balancing on the political fulcrum, just barely voting Trump in 2016 and just barely Biden in 2020. Yet Swing State isn't about elections and isn't obviously political. Rather, it concerns the interplay between different world views, perhaps explained as simply (yet profoundly) as hope vs. disappointment, or our darker angels vs. our brighter. Three characters particularly swing between these moods, as the play flirts with comedy before turning radically serious in the final 20 minutes.
We first meet Peg (Mary Beth Fisher), a widow in her late 50s, dedicated to preserving a tract of virgin prairie on her small farm. Peg, in crisis after the unexpected death of her husband, harbors suicidal thoughts. That's her "swing." Apparently childless, Peg has grown close to twentysomething Ryan (Bubba Weiler), a troubled young man possibly suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome. Ryan lacks emotional control, has substance abuse issues, and served time for drunken battery. His swing is obvious. Peg pretty much is all Ryan has, and vice versa. Peg leaves the prairie to a conservation group in her will, but the remaining land, house, and barn to Ryan.
When Peg discovers some of her late husband's old tools are missing from the barn, along with a vintage Winchester rifle, the brusque and self-important Sheriff Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerald) immediately suspects Ryan. Her collegiate son OD'd on fentanyl not that long ago, which seems to have hardened her attitude towards Ryan, with his history of substance abuse. Almost in passing, Sheriff Kris suggests she and her brothers could purchase Peg's farm and plow under the prairie. Kris is assisted by Dani (Anne E. Thompson), her new deputy just three weeks on the job and recently divorced. Dani, disappointed she attended only a two-year college, believes law enforcement will be fulfilling. Things take a dire turn, though, when Kris and Dani arrive at the house to arrest Ryan and the Winchester reappears. Shots are fired.
Swing State pitches the two older women against each other — the tree-hugger vs. The Law — with Sheriff Kris the most hardened figure. Ryan and Dani still have choices open to them, although Ryan never seems emotionally capable of controlling his life. Still, all four characters are complex, and Gilman skillfully reveals layers of personality in a few lines of dialogue. For instance, Peg uses sardonic humor to spar with Kris, and swings between despairing and nurturing. And there's also a lovely scene in which Ryan and Dani make a tentative personal connection discussing prairie wildlife. For that moment at least, the brighter angels seem ascendant.
This is the fifth Gilman world premiere staged by Robert Falls, recently retired as Goodman Theatre artistic director after 36 years. He's a master of his craft who knows when to leave auteurism behind and let a naturalistic play take its course, as he wisely does here. You do not see his hand, but you see his intelligence, and Gilman's, too. The actors — all with lengthy Chicago résumés — tackle their roles with confidence, especially Weiler who has the greatest emotional turns. Fisher, well-known to New York and Chicago audiences, is as nuanced and convincing as always, and she and Fitzgerald make a splendid dry-comedy duo in their tense scenes together. Thompson projects charm and a lovely smile in the one scene (with Weiler) in which she has the opportunity.
"Swing State" is a dark play, almost certainly meant to represent the troubled, unsettled current national mood in which we'd rather lay blame than just suck it up. The physical production, nonetheless, is warm and bright. Todd Rosenthal has designed a cozy box set with a small, inviting kitchen and comfy book-lined sitting area, with old bird houses on the shelves and leather armchairs. Eric Southern's lighting also is warm, with plenty of sunlight flowing through the windows in daytime scenes. Evelyn M. Danner's costumes are appropriate, if unflashy, cop uniforms and casual wear.
A case probably can be made that Peg represents America's progressive traditions and Ryan the MAGA constituency, lashing out at liberal largesse (Peg's) and scheming against it, with Sheriff Kris as a law-and-order conservative and Dani as the undecided swing voter. But it might be better to take Swing State as a play about lives in conflict, rather than as a political schematic.