Rebecca Gilman shows her deftness at writing “slice of life” plays in SWING STATE. In this latest collaboration with outgoing Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Robert Falls, Gilman introduces four characters at a crossroads in a small town in rural Wisconsin during summer 2021. It’s marketed as a play about the pandemic, and indeed, SWING STATE contains some references to the COVID-19 pandemic, masks, and vaccines. Ultimately, though, SWING STATE is a pure character study with the notions of pandemic and extinction of the human race in the background, and notions of mortality and despair in the foreground. Yes, it’s a post-pandemic play, but really it’s just allowing us to peer into the lives of these characters at a moment in time. That’s not to say that Gilman’s play isn’t moving, but I found the overall execution to not be as overarching as the set-up purports.
SWING STATE undoubtedly is a play about survival and has its central characters explore how to find the will to go on in the wake of tragedy. Although I’m not usually one for content warnings, I think it’s essential to note that suicide is a huge part of SWING STATE. I don’t want to spoil details, but that’s necessary to include—this is a play that very much shows us characters at the end of their ropes.
Peg is the centerpiece of the play (and she’s played in a star turn from Mary Beth Fisher), who is mourning the loss of her husband and seems at her wit’s end. The play’s first scene literally has Peg contemplating cutting herself as she makes zucchini bread in her kitchen. Gilman does find an interesting balance in those early moments, though. When Ryan (Bubba Weiler) comes onto the scene, Peg spends part of their first conversation lamenting the deaths of a species of bats in the area. The conclusion is simple: The extinction of those bats is akin to the many deaths as a result of the pandemic. It’s also a reflection of Peg’s own contemplation of her life and whether she wants to keep on going.
If it sounds like SWING STATE is a dark play, it undoubtedly is. The entire play takes place in Peg’s kitchen and some of the surrounding areas of her house in a realistically lived-in set from Todd Rosenthal. Because so much of the play is straight dialogue with little movement, it meanders at points. But Gilman and Falls together are also able to build suspense over the course of the play’s 100 or so minutes. When some old tools and a rifle go missing from Peg’s house, Sheriff Kris (Kirsen Fitzgerald) and her niece Dani (Anne Thompson), newly appointed to law enforcement, come on the scene. It’s a small town so the lives of all four characters intersect in interesting ways as the play progresses and memories from the past are evoked. Sheriff Kris particularly has her eye on Ryan, who has been formerly incarcerated.
Although SWING STATE sometimes drifts too much for my taste, the performances anchor the immense humanity in the characters. Fisher has a grounded and staid energy as Peg; she doesn’t overplay any moment, but instead treats the character with a delicate touch. The fact that Fisher avoids any trace of melodrama in a role with such a dramatic arc is a testament to her immense acting abilities. Weiler is a worthy scene partner for Fisher; Ryan’s despair and rage are worn more outright than Peg’s, but Weiler doesn’t overdo it. Fitzgerald has a necessary “tough cookie” demeanor as Sheriff Kris, but the take is nuanced enough to avoid making her an archetype. Thompson has a powerful softness as Dani. Her line deliveries are soft spoken and lilting. This is a play that asks the actors to handle the characters with a light touch, and they all do.
Nothing about SWING STATE feels monumental or oversized. Instead, it’s an overall delicate play about the hardships of life and fumbling your way through it. While larger themes echo in the background, I still left the theater thinking that this is another prime example of a Rebecca Gilman character study. SWING STATE is a little slice of humanity and ultimately it presents us with characters trying to make it through their days in a trying time—and we’re in the audience to witness how they handle that.
SWING STATE plays the Owen Theatre at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, through November 13, 2022. Tickets are $20-$80. Visit GoodmanTheatre.org/SwingState.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com