Swing State

Mary Beth Fisher and Bubba Weiler in Rebecca Gilman’s "Swing State."

We typically think of a swing state, also called a “battleground state,” as key to the outcome of elections because Republican and Democratic candidates have similar chances of prevailing, but playwright Rebecca Gilman has more on her mind than politics in the world premiere of “Swing State” at Goodman Theatre.

This is Gilman's tenth play at Goodman, making her the theater's most-produced contemporary playwright, and her sixth directed by Robert Falls, who recently stepped down as artistic director. As usual, she has a genius for illuminating the larger picture while examining the lives and relationships of ordinary people.

Set in the summer of 2021, when pandemic despondency pervaded our lives, “Swing State” is suffused with sadness and nostalgia for better times. The action takes place in a comfortably cluttered old farmhouse kitchen and  sitting room — beautifully created by set designer Todd Rosenthal and lighting designer Eric Southern — in Cardiff Township, somewhere in the Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin, which, yes, is a swing state.

The house and 48 acres of prairie —  amid the thousands of acres of farm land —  belong to 60-something Peg Smith (Mary Beth Fisher in one of her best performances), a retired school guidance counselor whose husband Jim, with whom she meticulously restored and maintained the prairie, died a year earlier. She's suffering from depression, and we sense it before she says anything, as she listlessly prepares the batter for zucchini bread late at night, contemplating using the knife on herself a couple of times. 

Peg's state of mind swings from one thought and emotion to the next, and the same is true of the play's three other characters. We learn more about her with the arrival of her neighbor, 20-something Ryan Severson (Bubba Weiler), and about him, too. 

Recently released from prison after several years for a near fatal bar fight, Ryan currently works as a truck driver and has been sober for four years. Peg and her husband have treated him as a surrogate son since his troubled youth and he sees her virtually every day. Staying on the wagon is hard for him, and he's given to angry outbursts and panic attacks in response to stress.

When Peg tries to talk to Ryan about leaving him the house and three surrounding acres of prairie (she's leaving the rest to the Prairie Protectors), he knows something is wrong. She won't say what exactly but has just given a heart-breaking account of the environmental degradation that has occurred. Her list of animals lost includes the bats killed off by a fungus imported from Europe, chorus frogs, whip-poor-wills and nighthawks, not to mention an “insect apocalypse.” She also meticulously saves the seeds of her favorite wildflower.

Many of the conversations between Peg and Ryan are about mundane things and are humorous, but they reveal how much they care about — and for — each other. The pitfall is misguided behavior on both their parts, which leads to misunderstandings, mistrust and worse.

The agents of disruption in this rural area where everyone knows everyone are Sheriff Kris Callahan Wisnefski (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and her niece and newly appointed deputy Dani (Anne E. Thompson). Take-no-prisoners Sheriff Kris, a stickler for the rules though she balks at wearing a mask, is very much the antithesis of Peg. She says she hates seeing anything go to waste, offers to buy the prairie to develop it and would cut Peg's oaks down for lumber if only they were a few feet over on her property. She also blames Ryan for the death of her son Jason from an opioid overdose and is basically out to get him for any infringement.

Dani, in contrast, is a lovely young woman who has gotten out of a bad marriage and is happy to have a job that promises to give her a sense of purpose. Alas, she's in for a major trauma instead.

While the acting is superb all around, and the characters’ interactions go to interesting places, I was disappointed by the melodramatic — and rather predictable — climax of the plot and a denouement offering a less-than-believable sop to forgiveness. There's an argument to be made for a happier ending that doesn't rely on violence yet remains true to the spirit of “Swing State.”  

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