Rebecca Gilman’s work has come to define the Well-Made Play of today. Her shows have: portentous titles. Cultural resonance, blunt dialogue, and themes that tend to announce themselves. Plus a crisp one-act pace with a “wow” moment every 20 minutes or so. I’m not knocking what she does: it’s effective in the moment, and she sides with the working class and the dispossessed. But it dissipates fast.
So it is with Swing State, which deals with the red, blue, and purple schizophrenia of our times. When we meet Peg (Mary Beth Fisher) she’s puttering, and muttering, about her home in rural Wisconsin (the set, by the great Todd Rosenthal of August: Osage County fame, is pin-point accurate, almost a replica of the places I spend time in when visiting the Midwest). She pulls out a knife, and in two very precise movements it’s clear she plans to chop herself up (wow). A visitor, Ryan (Bubba Weiler), breaks the spell. We think he might be her son, but after some chit-chat in the darkening afternoon we learn that he used to work with Peg and her husband, who died not long after retiring (ahh, hmm). Her plans to cultivate her acreage are in limbo, and so is Ryan, who has few other prospects after being released from prison. When Peg’s farm is burgled, of some tools and a rifle (hmm), the play’s two other characters, Sheriff Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerland) and her deputy, Dani (Anne E. Thompson), enter the scene. The formidable sheriff is a hard-assed Trumper who immediately suspects Ryan of the crime; the younger Dani, unsteady on her feet after a painful divorce, is more open-minded but also more inquisitive. Suffice is to say that Peg, who immediately regrets involving the law in the theft, will really come to regret it by the show’s end.
Swing State operates on a couple of tracks. Peg and Kris, cousins split over the prairie land the former owns (and plans to deed to Ryan) and the latter’s family covets, could not be more unalike in manner, bearing, and politics and loathe one another. (The show is set in 2021 and they argue over masks.) But they’re bound together by blood. Ryan and Dani, gentler souls who were once Peg’s students, have no ties but can’t pull themselves out of their mutual rut. There’s an attraction there, separated by Dani’s badge; she doesn’t seem fully capable of police work, and despite his prison stretch and associations with local riff raff he doesn’t appear to be a hardened criminal. But how much is naiveté and how much is calculation on both their parts? How much has the older generation shaped or shadowed their lives? The show, I surmise, is about us being unable to read behind the headlines of our lives, the actions and events that only seem to define us, even in a place that’s more analog than digital.
As such it moves along at a decent clip, with a quartet of excellent performances imported and honed from its Chicago engagement by the esteemed director Robert Falls. Unlike other staged-for-radio shows I’ve seen by Audible Theater at the Minetta Lane this should play very well over a streaming device, ironic given their absence from the piece; the action is contained and effectively visceral. (And strongly voiced, especially by the embittered yet tender Fisher, whose Peg is a community organizer type with little community to organize; expect to see all these actors on NYC-filmed TV shows before long.) It’s not, however, terribly surprising. The expected thing doesn’t happen, but we’ve learned to expect the unexpected thing happening instead, and it’s a letdown when it does. (The symbolic bird that’s mentioned gets brought up again.) The wow fizzles, and we’re left with a Well-Made Play that fails to leave a mark on us.