Rebecca Gilman’s Swing State is the theatrical equivalent of a bitter wind blowing from the Wisconsin prairie to Greenwich Village by way of Chicago, one that should naturally elicit a post-pandemic howl of remembrance but doesn’t. Though the individual and collective suffering in the play is always recognizable, it’s difficult to feel, because Gilman has so inartfully turned the characters’ pain into plot points. This manipulative effort drags the audience sitting and slumbering toward hope or at least its waiting room, where a concluding attempt at solace might as well be stitched on a throw pillow.
Gilman’s triteness and predictability combine to poorly serve a talented acting quartet, all of whom originated their roles in a 2022 production of Swing State at the Goodman Theatre under the usually steady hand of that institution’s former Artistic Director Robert Falls, a Chicago legend. For whatever reason, Falls has kept his directing duties for the Off-Broadway run, too (a nice dinner at Minetta Tavern perhaps?). But it was a wasted trip for everyone, likely motivated by tragic topicality, the reputation of a world-class theater company, and a local sense of obligation to peek outside the New York bubble.
With a fracturing reserve, Mary Beth Fisher leads the cast as the aging Peg, a retired guidance counselor who is in an emotional spiral from the first moments we see her. It’s summer 2021, and she’s alone, holding a large knife, and pondering suicide out loud while also baking zucchini bread much too late at night in her Rockwellian Wisconsin home (cozily designed by Todd Rosenthal), which is nestled on nearly 50 acres of remnant prairie. Admittedly, it’s a poignantly disjointed picture of agony.
After the twentysomething Ryan (Bubba Weiler)–a troubled neighbor and surrogate son–arrives for a close-to-the-wee-hours chat, Peg’s quickly mustered outward composure is betrayed while divulging that she once regarded COVID-19 as the earth’s last chance to be rid of its greatest enemy: humanity. Grief, anger, and fear inform this misanthropy. Not only does the modern world want to develop her small slice of paradise out of existence, but she’s also lost her agreeable Adam while living under the social strains of the pandemic. Apparently, her late biologist husband–who died from a heart attack the previous year–equally enjoyed grass, wildflowers, and insects while feeling the opposite way about people. But, however much we might sympathize with Peg, Swing State suffers dramatically from failing to present a compelling challenge to her sorrows, hatred for us all, and nonstop prairie metaphors.
For his part, Ryan is an anxiety-ridden recovering alcoholic simultaneously burdened by, let’s see, a criminal record, a miserable family history, and a dead-end, irregular-hours job driving a bread truck. Given these myriad problems, he can certainly do without listening to Peg’s yearnings for oblivion. As Ryan imploringly asks, “Can you throw me a bone here? So I don’t go open a vein?” Indeed, Peg should not be sharing self-destructive thoughts with someone who both cares about her and personally struggles to get through each day without a panic attack. Nevertheless, Peg doubles down on her pandemic comments, informing Ryan about abrupt plans to set her affairs in order, which will result in a prairie-protection organization inheriting her untouched land and Ryan getting the house. To say the least, he does not find this news a comfort.
Whether Ryan immediately grasps the depths of Peg’s despair is a murky question. That it also becomes a central one, though, is the real problem with Swing State, as the audience waits like patience on a monument for both Ryan and the play’s two other characters, Sheriff Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and Deputy Dani (Anne E. Thompson), to either figure out or simply acknowledge what it has known from the start. Leaving aside the play’s laboriously escalating Sturm und Drang, as well as the production’s reductive take on mental health, Gilman just can’t overcome the terminal lack of suspense surrounding Peg’s never-in-doubt state of mind.
Eric Southern’s lighting and Richard Woodbury’s music try to ominously compensate for Gilman’s initial structural mistake, but, through the introduction of the law enforcement duo and their investigation into a stolen footlocker from Peg’s barn that contained antique farm tools and a Winchester rifle, the playwright slaps away their helping hands. With Chekhovian economy, Sheriff Kris and Deputy Dani’s exhaustive search for the culprit never goes beyond the program’s cast of characters (If Peg didn’t steal her own stuff, then, of course!) And, yes, those holstered guns aren’t going to remain that way.
Exposition-laden dialogue lets Sheriff Kris and Deputy Dani add their own forlorn backstories to Gilman’s dreary Midwestern tapestry, so that all the characters’ threads gloomily come together through a clumsily manufactured misfortune. Not content to leave bad enough alone, however, Gilman also gives us an oddly didactic epilogue, where violent trauma somehow equates to spiritual renewal. Now, that was a surprise.
Swing State (through October 28, 2023)
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-982-2787 or visit http://www.audible.com/ep/minettalane
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission