By: Darryl Reilly
The list of things that are gone. First it was the chorus frogs. We used to have chorus frogs in that ephemeral pond at the bottom of the driveway… I can’t remember the last time we heard a Whip-poor-will… We used to have Nighthawks. They’d circle over that dip in the road between your house and ours. I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve seen one. Six or seven years? Ten years? I think I’ve seen one Monarch on my milkweed all summer. I’m just stating the facts. It’s what we’ve done. Our species. As a species, we suck.
So, opines a 65-year-old woman living in a Wisconsin prairie farmhouse in author Rebecca Gilman’s powerful contemporary play, Swing State. Due to Ms. Gilman’s masterful dialogue, impeccable construction, well-crafted plotting, resonant themes, and laser-sharp focus on its characters, it is a great American play. Gilman offers a searing drama which subtly, yet forcefully captures life in the United States in the aftermath of the era of Donald Trump. He, the pandemic and the opioid epidemic are referenced.
In the summer of 2021, we meet retired high school guidance counselor Peg while she is beating eggs to make zucchini bread. She has stoically soldiered on for the last year since the sudden death of her beloved husband, his ashes are still in a box on a kitchen counter. While she chatters to herself, she picks up a knife and contemplates slitting her wrist, then goes back to cooking. Her neighbor, 26-year-old Ryan arrives at Peg’s house for dinner after his shift as a driver of a bakery delivery truck. He is a troubled man from a dysfunctional family who served time in prison for a drunken bar fight. For the last 20 years, Peg and her husband were surrogate parents to Ryan, and they are each extremely protective of each other. The theft of farm tools and an old rifle incites Peg to call the police. They are represented by an officious by the book female sheriff in her 50’s and her female deputy, her 27-year-old niece who is finding herself after the breakup of a bad marriage. Revelations and drama ensue.
Swing State premiered to great acclaim at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in the fall of 2022, this Off-Broadway transfer is presented by Audible. Renowned director Robert Falls staged both incarnations with his customary polish and sensitivity; there is a plain conversational state matched with forceful physical staging, and the original cast’s tremendous performances.
The towering Mary Beth Fisher is majestic as Peg. With her commanding presence and soothing expressive voice, Ms. Fisher is heartbreaking portraying this idealistic Earth Mother. The animated Bubba Weiler offers a magnetic portrait of unraveling youthful despair with his charged characterization of Ryan. Simultaneously chilling and comic, the swaggering Kirsten Fitzgerald fearlessly plays the sheriff, embracing her self-justified villainy. Anne E. Thompson as the deputy supremely evokes the character’s sense of confusion in her life with her affective performance while following police protocols.
Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal’s rambling, cluttered and detailed farmhouse arrestingly depicts a kitchen, dining room and living room, as well the outside through their windows. Eric Southern’s lighting design is of low-key brilliance, simply illuminating the interior and artfully capturing daylight and night outside, with shimmering blackouts punctuating scene transitions. Sound designer Richard Woodbury’s nature tones, barking dog, arriving motor vehicles and gunfire, are all piercingly rendered, and his original music is moody and atmospheric. From everyday wear to police and delivery uniforms, costume designer Evelyn M. Danner achieves individualized authenticity. Fight and intimacy director Nick Sandys has choregraphed a stunning and suspenseful combat sequence.
Swing State is a wrenching depiction of the current American scene through its flawless dramatic writing and entrancing presentation.
Swing State (through October 28.2023)
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit www.swingstateplay.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission