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  • Jonathan Kalb

Little Thumb on the Prairie

The headline for Swing State, a new play by Rebecca Gilman, is its pitch-perfect production directed by Robert Falls, which originated at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and has now come to the Minetta Lane. The play itself is strong enough, not the sharpest Gilman has produced but certainly thoughtful, provocative, and artfully crafted. What truly lingers from the show are the splendid performances.

Gilman has always been keen on topicality. She burst onto the theater scene in the late 1990s with plays like Spinning Into Butter and Boy Gets Girl that tapped the explosive energies in hot-button issues like campus racism and stalking. Swing State is also topical but with a lighter touch. It’s one of those plays with a careful balance, that asks to be seen from several different perspectives at once but never affirms the priority of any.

On the one hand, it’s about the endangered prairie—particularly a 40-acre remnant of it in Wisconsin where diverse native plants flourish and uncommon birds like whip-poor-wills, nighthawks, and Henslow’s sparrows alight. This land is owned by widowed 65-year-old Peg, who’s been trying to protect it from the surrounding Big-Ag farms, with their toxic herbicides that seep over boundaries. The surrounding owners want to buy her out.

On the other hand, the play is about Wisconsin as a political swing state. Peg is liberal and those farms belong to the brothers of the right-wing sheriff, Kris. Kris, played with apt bluntness by Kirsten Fitzgerald, is a thick-headed law-and-order type who thinks all land should be “put to good use” and all criminals are incorrigible. She harbors cold hatred for Ryan, the 26-year-old ex-con and orphan who helps Peg out on the property. When a rifle goes missing from Peg’s barn, Kris assumes Ryan took it. We later learn Kris blames Ryan for her own son’s overdose years ago; he may have scored drugs at a party at Ryan’s house.

On the proverbially ungainly third hand, the play is also clearly about despair. Peg considers stabbing herself in the wordless first scene, has made a will leaving the house to Ryan, and the reason she was looking for that rifle, we learn near the end, was to do herself harm. Most viewers will guess that much earlier if they’re paying even half attention. Peg has been deeply grieving her husband, who died suddenly a year ago, and is now channeling her grief into desperate anguish about the ravages of climate change and biodiversity loss. It’s 2021 and the pandemic has intensified her isolation. This story may be lacking in true surprise, but Gilman is skilled enough to unfold it crisply in 7 well-crafted scenes.

It’s the actors who bring depth and contour to the drama. Gilman wrote the role of Peg for Mary Beth Fisher, and Fisher’s minutely observed and modulated performance turns what could easily be a preachy and whiney grumbler into a complex, relatable figure you listen to closely. Peg’s sneakily arch sense of humor when dealing with fragile Ryan, splendidly played by Bubba Weiler, infuses all their scenes with a kind of psychological surprise even when the events aren’t surprising. Also central to that thick texture is Anne E. Thompson’s shrewdly understated, quietly pivotal performance as Dani, Kris’s 27-year-old niece who just joined the police force as a deputy three weeks ago. Dani starts out tentative and uncertain but comes to function as an arbiter between the camps. Her involvement in the play’s sudden violent climax feels like a small tragedy due to Thompson’s layered sensitivity.

It’s a shame that that tragedy—the harm that the violence would certainly do to Dani—is papered over in a curiously unconvincing final scene that imagines an easy kumbaya denouement between people who, as the audience well knows, would almost certainly never speak again after what happened. I can only imagine that Gilman, like millions of others, has become so obsessed with public apology and the dream of reconciled polarization that she dolloped this epilogue on in a fit of hortatory optimism, like dramatic whipped cream.

Underdeveloped as she is, Dani is actually the most original and memorable figure in Swing State. She’s the closest Gilman comes in this work to the sort of character who made her early plays gripping—characters like Sarah Daniels in Spinning Into Butter and Theresa Bedell in Boy Gets Girl who were steering confident paths through their very tricky circumstances until the climactic moments when they suddenly weren’t. They became utterly confused as they were swept up by torrential circumstances they had no control over, and that confusion made them impossible to nail down as either clear victims or clear perpetrators.

Swing State is much more rueful and contemplative than either of those plays, but Gilman’s instinct for holding audiences with pointed ambiguity is still evident. She has imagined a moving story here for a hopelessly anti-communal moment, and then, trying to be fair, couldn’t resist putting her thumb on the scale.

Photos: Liz Lauren

by Rebecca Gilman

Minetta Lane Theatre

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