Swing State | 1hr 45mins. No intermission. | Minetta Lane Theatre | 18 Minetta Lane | 646-476-9224
With a name like Swing State, you’d assume Rebecca Gilman’s play would follow Presidential hopefuls taking selfies in an election year. Instead, this moving, well-built drama—which arrives Off Broadway from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre via Audible for a limited run—features zero casting of ballots. Unfold it does in rural Wisconsin, but the title refers to characters in liminal states, oscillating between grieving/healing, imprisonment/freedom, or innocence/guilt. Not to mention the woman who presses a kitchen knife to her arm veins in the opening scene; we think of those swinging from a rafter to end the pain.
The lady is Peg (Mary Beth Fisher), late-middle-aged owner of a farmhouse and 40 acres of “remnant prairie” that she and her late husband Jim (sudden heart attack) were in the process of rewilding—restoring historic ecosystems decimated by Big Ag farming. Sensitive, liberal, and not slowing down in her 60s, Peg has prepared her will, which bequeaths the majority of the land to a conservation group and the house to her young neighbor, Ryan (Bubba Weiler). In his mid-20s, Ryan already lost both parents (at least one to alcoholism) and served time for a violent felony. He’s trying to stay sober and support himself with a dead-end trucking job. When Ryan learns that the childless Peg has made him her beneficiary, he’s angry and alarmed.
Out of these understated but emotionally fraught threads, Gilman spins a domestic tragedy about the walking wounded trying to help one another, with secrecy twisting good intentions into fatal traps. Ryan’s friendship with Peg is affectionate but prickly; no doubt a maternal figure who’s not an abusive drunk both soothes and confuses him. Although Peg spent years as a high-school guidance counselor, she keeps her despair hidden in a basement of brisk politeness, the door weighted with eco-fretting over Henslow’s Sparrows and shooting stars (endangered bird and plant species). Peg tells Ryan her will is “to make sure everything’s protected in perpetuity. Or until the world ends. So like, another 15 years.”
Only a veteran storyteller like Gilman could embed a joke in the bleakest places, like sowing seeds in rocky soil. The Chicago-based writer gives a proverbial master class in controlling information, keeping one step ahead of the audience and ratcheting up tension until we reach the inevitable but still shocking climax. To facilitate a dangerous entanglement of motives and biases, Gilman introduces authoritarian Sherriff Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and her wide-eyed niece, deputy Dani (Anne E. Thompson). When Peg’s barn is burgled—tools and a rifle stolen—Kris hounds Ryan as the prime suspect—in her mind. Since the officious Sheriff lost a son to a drug overdose, her persecution of Ryan has the sense of a mother punishing the son she couldn’t save. For her part, Dani and Ryan have lovely scene suggesting the bud of a romance that could redeem them both.
To say more would deny the satisfying shocks (and, again, laughs) that Swing State patiently builds in 105 minutes of keenly observed drama. Director Robert Falls, formerly head of the Goodman and the country’s leading interpreter of Eugene O’Neill, stages the naturalistic action on a unit set of Peg’s kitchen and living room (designed by Todd Rosenthal), with expert efficiency, using the pitch-perfect ensemble from the 2022 Chicago world premiere. These are unshowy but utterly magnetic actors who can play working class and rural, who don’t condescend to their characters’ flaws, no matter how petty or provincial.
One caveat I have is the final scene, a de rigueur resolution after a punishing climax which borders on pat. Tragedies can end at an unbearable apex of sorrow or offer a healing postscript. In his pre-pandemic shocker Greater Clements, Samuel D. Hunter went with the former. Sweat (2015), by Lynn Nottage, ended in grimness but with a glimmer of shared humanity. Gilman comes down solidly for forgiveness and closure (there’s even a joke related to cremains and seeds). I didn’t entirely buy it tonally (despite tender performances) and it left a bland aftertaste, but I will admit: if the choice is between giving up or going on, we should arc toward hope.