By Sarah Downs
On a summer’s eve, in a homey, crowded kitchen, Peg (Mary Beth Fisher) is cracking eggs. Outside, cricket song fills the night air. Fisher takes her time, filling out the quiet with so much inner life you are quite happy to watch her stir a bowl of batter. Ryan (Bubba Weiler) the hapless son of former neighbors walks in as if this is his own home, and in a way it is. Peg and her husband Jim took him into their hearts years ago. Ryan sits down to a bowl of home-made soup and easy conversation. It is the start of a journey through hope, grief and the law of unintended consequences.
There in a rural Wisconsin town, whose stifling conservative politics stand in direct opposition to her values, Peg is steadfastly waging a one-woman battle to save the prairie idyll her husband and she had stumbled upon 20 years before. Climate change and the slow loss of nature’s gifts have now added to the melancholy caused by her husband’s recent death.
Fisher, as Peg, has a very natural delivery and strong presence. Text does not lie heavily in her mouth. She creates a believable relationship with Weiler, who affects an almost sing-song intonation reflective of his character’s instability. You feel for Ryan. He is a man child, who has been run over by life almost before he got started. Ryan has made some bad choices in his life, the repercussions of which tether him to the past — and to the law. His emotions swing from near optimism to panic on a dime. Peg is anxious to break that cycle.
A report of lost property threatens to derail her plans, as this brings the Sheriff, Kris Wisnefski (an unapologetically fierce Kirsten Fitzgerald) to Peg’s home, accompanied by Kris’s deputy and niece, Dani (a quietly luminous Anne E. Thompson). Dani is an unlikely candidate for police deputy. She resembles more a flower crushed by her overbearing, ambitious aunt, than an officer of the law. However, like the wildflowers Peg endeavors to save, Dani demonstrates unexpected resilience. In a way, of all of them she is the one who is most a child of nature, a kind of oddball voice of reason and intuition.
Director Robert Falls has the confidence to trust the material, his actors and himself. The pace flows organically, yet at all times totally under his command.
Todd Rosenthal’s detailed set, under Eric Southern‘s subtle lighting, is a garden of ordinary and quirky delights. A cozy library with floor to ceiling books, a vintage 80’s kitchen, that perfectly tuned screen door with the characteristic spring and weight that lingers in sense memory. Kudos also to properties designer Alice Maguire for a marvelously eclectic grouping of vintage bowls, vases and other kitchen paraphernalia. Evelyn M. Danner’s costumes have the lived in quality of clothes worn by people who work with their hands. Nothing looks out of place. The effect is greatly enhanced by the original music composed by Richard Woodbury.
Swing State is a wonderful play. Beautifully written, thoughtfully structured, and emotionally trenchant, it lays bare so much of what ails us – grief, conflict and compassion, in a uniquely American context. Rebecca Gilman’s writing unfurls like a woven cloth, stretching and pulling with myriad layers. Its fabric accommodates but does not tear.
The play is unique in that it is a political play that is not overtly political. The narrative is powerful, but even more so the clarity of characterization, as the four protagonists come face-to-face with the price of progress (or is that the wages of sin?) Loaded with metaphor, visual in effect, Swing State is complete in itself, which is immensely satisfying.
Swing State, by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Robert Falls. With Mary Beth Fisher, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Anne E. Thompson and Bubba Weiler.
Scenic design by Todd Rosenthal, costume design by Evelyn M. Danner, lighting by Eric Southern, music and sound design by Richard Woodbury, properties by Alice Maguire, fight direction by Nick Sandys.
Presented by Audible Theater, at the Minetta Lane Theatre (18 Minetta Lane). Runs through October 21st. Tickets available at www.swingstateplay.com. The show will also be recorded and released on Audible at a later date.
Run time 1 hr. 45 minutes with no intermission. Face masks are encouraged but not required.