‘Swing State’ Review: All Is Not Well in Wisconsin

It’s immediately clear what kind of flinty, progressive woman lives in the converted farmhouse depicted onstage in “Swing State,” the play by Rebecca Gilman that opened on Sunday at the Minetta Lane Theater. Well, not so much “depicted” as “duplicated.”

You can just about sense the recycling bins beneath the working sink and the Obama memoirs in the book-filled sitting room of Todd Rosenthal’s cozy set, a throwback to the hyper-naturalistic style that has for decades dominated American social drama. Indeed, as the play begins, Peg Smith, whose name alone lets you know she’s plain and real, stands cracking eggs at her kitchen island to make the homeliest food ever devised: zucchini bread.

But all is not well among the baskets, birdhouses and earthenware bowls. For one thing, there’s a container of human ashes on the counter. Peg (Mary Beth Fisher) has been a widow for a little more than a year, and not doing well. She and her husband had moved to this corner of rural Wisconsin to enjoy the ancient prairie taking up 48 of their 51 acres; without him — and this being the pandemic year of 2021, without much of anyone — her life feels joyless. She is considering, as the euphemism has it, “self-harm”: The knife with which she chops the zucchini can cut both ways.

The prairie isn’t doing well either, abutted by commercial farms and subjected to the runoff of their agrochemicals. A young neighbor named Ryan (Bubba Weiler) sarcastically calls Peg a “ray of sunshine” as she rattles off a valedictory list of dying local species: bats, chorus frogs, whippoorwills, wildflowers, butterflies, nighthawks and the insects they feed on.

The dying off, though real, is also, alas, a symbol. “Swing State,” as its title suggests, means to connect the land to its people: poorly stewarded and subject to dangerous fluctuations. Though Donald Trump is mentioned only once — Peg says she canceled her subscription to the local newspaper when it endorsed him — he is as much the target here as the agrochemicals. In the play’s cosmology, the debased politics of narcissism have polluted American life with the aggro-chemicals of overly heightened and disordered emotions. Democracy is a prairie.

I don’t argue with that premise. Nor with Gilman’s craft; I’ve admired her since her first New York outing, the shocker “Spinning Into Butter,” in 2000. “Swing State”— frugal with themes, meticulous about motivation, minutely sensitive to the timing of revelations — could serve as a case study in dramatic construction.

A young neighbor named Ryan (Bubba Weiler) sarcastically calls Peg a “ray of sunshine” as she rattles off a valedictory list of dying local species.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

That, for me, is the problem. We have become very familiar with the workings of social-problem plays like this. If we see Peg staring nervously at the knife in the first minute, and by the second scene (out of seven) learn that a footlocker containing a Winchester rifle has been stolen from her barn, we may already discern the shape of the rest. That there are only three other characters — one of them Ryan, who has recently been released from prison — does not leave many doors open.

Ryan and Peg are both outsiders, oddballs trying to survive in a system that puts a premium on conformity and offers little help, or hope of reform, to those who suffer or do wrong. They are classic lefty tropes: the do-gooder who is seen as a crackpot and the misunderstood young man who is seen as a threat. The two remaining characters — Kris Callahan Wisnefski, the town sheriff, and Dani Wisnefski, her niece and the newbie deputy — represent the over-reactive forces of conservative society, more interested in order than in goodness. Sheriff Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerald) immediately accuses Ryan of the theft and sets out to prove her prejudice. Dani (Anne E. Thompson) is eager to do right but is intimidated (and undertrained) by her barky aunt.

In Robert Falls’s staging, imported from the Goodman Theater in Chicago and presented here by Audible, every collision is clearly tuned. The scenes snap into place like machine-tooled puzzle pieces, with lighting (by Eric Southern), costumes (by Evelyn Danner) and music (by Richard Woodbury) that all but feeds the audience its emotional cues. And though Gilman does much to complicate the characters’ motives with back story that’s elaborately layered into the dialogue — so elaborately that at one point a character is forced to ask, “Why are you telling me this?” — none except Peg seem quite believable.

Fisher is able to absorb the complications into a rounded performance in which they feel surprising but not synthetic. She has more to work with, of course, as she is onstage for most of the play’s 105 minutes, but also more to build on, having been a Gilman regular, like Falls, for years. (In New York she played a stalking victim in Gilman’s “Boy Gets Girl” in 2001.) She seems to move through the variously depressed, angry, loving and resigned aspects of the character like a hawk gliding on thermals. You barely notice the turns.

In the play overall, though, you do. And until a thrillingly staged climax that moves unusually fast, you usually foresee the corners with plenty of room to prepare. The result is a play that seems becalmed on its surface despite the powerful emotions underneath — not just the characters’ emotions but the author’s.

Gilman, who now lives in the part of Wisconsin where the play is set, the so-called Driftless Area, is evidently passionate about the same things as Peg. She too has become a volunteer for the Prairie Enthusiasts, a group dedicated to protecting the Upper Midwest’s natural heritage. (In the play the group is called the Prairie Protectors or, more derisively, the Prairie Geeks.) And clearly Gilman is invested in her overarching metaphor, telling Laura Collins-Hughes in The New York Times that the human ecosystem, like the natural one, is “not a monoculture. It cannot thrive unless it’s as diverse as diverse can be.”

If only she had dramatized that, I could be more of a full-throated warbler in praising the play. What “Swing State” actually dramatizes, sometimes movingly, is despair. Its action is driven less by any visible coarsening of America’s democratic ecosystem than by depression, alcoholism, spite and bad luck.

If anything, it is about the “swing state” of individual emotion, regardless of politics. (Even the good liberal Peg is erratic and sometimes nasty.) Still, its message — because yes, there is a message in all plays featuring sinks with running water — applies to our personal as well as our national ecosystems: “You can’t give up even if you want to.”

Swing State
Through Oct. 21 at the Minetta Lane Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

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