By: Paulanne Simmons
September 24, 2023: All four characters in Rebecca Gilman’s new play, Swing State, have something in common: they’re not very happy.
Peg (Mary Beth Fisher), a sixtyish former guidance counselor, is still grieving over her husband’s death barely a year ago.
Ryan (Bubba Weiler), whom Peg and her husband took under their wing when he was a troubled child, bears the scars of his incarceration after a drunken brawl.
Sheriff Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerald) carries the bitter memory of her son’s death from a drug overdose like an albatross draped over her shoulders.
Dani (Anne E. Thompson), who has become her Aunt Kris’s deputy, is recently divorced from a man she should have never married.
Even the animals and plants on the forty acres of prairie around Peg’s farmhouse are dying thanks to the poor husbandry of the Earth’s inhabitants.
Gilman’s slow-moving writing and Robert Fall’s even slower direction let the story unravel at a pace that makes a snail look speedy. But eventually we learn that the main event is the theft of a rifle and a chest of old tools from Peg’s garage.
Sheriff Kris thinks Ryan is the culprit. Peg refuses to entertain such an idea. Ryan vehemently denies the charge. Dani (in many ways the most sympathetic character) sees through the incident to the desperation and sorrow that is behind all their behavior.
Given the nature of this drama, the play should have been deeply moving. Somehow it was not. This might be because so much of the action takes place before the play begins or offstage. While onstage we mostly see endless conversations. Gilman needs all this dialogue to explain what we haven’t seen. But we also get the feeling Gilman doesn’t know when she has made her point.
Or it could be that Gilman is far too ambitious in her playwriting goals, which is evident in the very title of the play. Does “Swing State” refer to the state of mankind, the state of the world, the state of her characters, or does it perhaps refer to Wisconsin, the state where the play is set?
And then there’s the violent ending, that fits all the pieces together so carefully the whole play ends up seeming contrived. It also leaves us wondering. Are the people we have been watching important in their own right? Or is Gilman using them to exemplify a bigger point? Has these people’s tragedy more to do with the red/blue divide that is tearing our country apart than their own actions?
If the latter is true, who are the reds and who are the blues? Clearly Peg, who worries about the future of the planet and terminated her subscription to the local newspaper after it endorsed Trump, is a liberal. The unforgiving, law-and-order, lock ‘em up Sheriff Kris probably voted for Trump. But how about Dani and Ryan?
Scattered humor throughout the play and the uniformly excellent acting certainly help to make the show more compelling. And scenic designer Todd Rosenthal’s perfect reproduction of a country kitchen does a lot to help us see Peg’s isolation and the haven that is her home. But nothing can quite make up for our lack of involvement in the lives of these unfortunate people.
Swing State ***
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane
Through Oct 28, 2023
Photography: Liz Lauren