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Prairie Dawn: “Swing State” reviewed

She’s flown east! After a well-received production at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2022, Rebecca Gilma’s new drama, Swing State, has come to the Minetta Lane Theatre, the latest to be produced by Audible (with plans to be released as an audio drama following this fall’s run). Four solid actors, working under the tutelage of Robert Falls, all so solid work in this harrowing production. And even if sometimes you can clock the events that are about to occur, one thing is clear – for Gilman, the political is personal.

Her play takes us back to a very specific, and potentially traumatic period: It is the fall of 2021, and this is the real world, so COVID exists. (Play’s title aside, this show is not about an election – the closest reference we get might be Peg’s acknowledgment that she no longer subscribes to her town’s newspaper since it endorsed the losing presidential candidate in 2020). But life has affected Peg (Mary Beth Fisher, excellent) in other ways, too. A former teacher and guidance counselor living alone in her farmhouse – part of a nearly 50-acre prairie – following the recent death of her husband, Jim, her only regular visitor is Ryan (Bubba Weiler), a twentysomething ex-convict in recovery whom she treats like a surrogate son. She and Jim had routinely visited him in prison and even paid taxes on his house so that he’d have a home to which he could return.

Is everything all right with Peg? She seems stable and responsible, but maybe also a little bit unhinged. We first see her in her kitchen, play-acting at suicide by steak knife. And she’s clearly thinking about a world without her – she announces her plans to deed the prairie to a wildlife conservation group and bequeath her home to Ryan after her death.

Ryan also swings between disparate states. The young man is protective of Peg, and he also seeks her support as he eases back into work and sobriety after serving time for a felony battery conviction. In one scene, when Ryan experiences a panic attack, Peg kneels beside him and leads him through a breathing exercise. She asks if she can help him find a counselor. “Why would I need a counselor when I got you?” he retorts.

When several farm tools and an old rifle are stolen from her shed, new questions arise. The tough local sheriff, Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerald), who also happens to be a relative of the farmers surrounding Peg, suspects Ryan and leads an investigation, aided by her neophyte colleague, Dani (Anne E. Thompson), who is also a former student of Peg’s, and who more sympathetic than her mentor.

Gilman’s wheels turn in ways that may not surprise but are nonetheless revelatory in their take on human nature. Swing State functions like an anthropological study, with each of her four characters representing different stats of age, awareness, and socialization. These four start questioning who their allies are and lashing out at those who threaten their immediate interests. Gilman’s title isn’t to be taken literally – this is not a play about a swing state in an election scenario – but Peg and Kris do represent a more liberal and a more conservative frame of mind, respectively, while Dani and Ryan represent a new generation of complex, less polarized perspectives. (Eric Southern’s lighting design, deliberately drab), portrays the characters’ sense of isolation.)

Gilman has devised a very human scenario, but it occasionally dips into schematic lines so that the play can escalate in the direction the playwright needs it to in order to pack its punch. And there are occasional concessions to the audience: consumed with catching us up on character histories or associations, such as Peg’s marriage to Joe or Ryan’s incarceration, Swing State gets overly expository.

Falls, a stalwart director, has staged the piece with precision and does what he can within the Minetta Lane space (Todd Rosenthal did the attentive set design – notice how frequently characters drink from the water cooler; tap water is linked to cancer),  but also with some predictability. How many times can they simply sit around the kitchen table and wait until it’s their turn to divulge something? But the show builds to a significant climax. Swing State will certainly resonate with audiences, even if it does not necessarily grab them by the collar and shock them.

Swing State
Minetta Lane Theatre