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Swing State




Mary Beth Fisher and Bubba Weiler. (Photo: Liz Lauren)



Swing State

By Fern Siegel


Sad, lonely, desperate people provide ample fodder for drama.


That's true for Swing State, now off-Broadway at Audible's Minetta Lane Theatre. Its four-person cast populates a small town in Wisconsin, where playwright Rebecca Gilman examines the tensions and traumas that isolation can bring.

Life isn't happy here. Each character grapples with individual pain in a world that makes it tough to break free from assigned roles. But it also illustrates the push-pull between the possibility of redemption and the missteps that occur when people don't communicate their needs.

Peg (Mary Beth Fisher) is a no-nonsense former guidance counselor who lives in a farmhouse surrounded by 40 acres of original prairie land. Now a widow, she and her beloved husband, a wildlife specialist, marveled at the flora and fauna on their prized land. Without him, Peg is lonely and defeated.


Plus, the prairie's ecosystem is under severe threat - and she meticulously chronicles the disappearance of the botanical species that once defined her world. Destroyed by climate change and human excess, Peg notes: "As a species, we suck." The play underscores how hard survival can be once you lose the things you love most.


Fisher delivers a neatly calibrated portrait of grief that is all-encompassing, from rage to acceptance to resignation. She's holding on, but it's a daily battle to maintain her emotional equilibrium.


Eager to save what she can, Peg wills her acreage to a prairie trust - and her home to Ryan (Bubba Weiler). And Ryan is a big liability.


An alcoholic and recent ex-con, he's grappling with his own demons. Peg and her husband met him as a youngster and he functions as a pseudo-adoptive son - but the troublesome variety.


Anne E. Thompson, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Mary Beth Fisher (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Yes, they care about each other, but they can't seem to connect. At least, he can't fully accept her concern, however much he privately confides to Dani (Anne E. Thompson), the sweet, but despondent deputy sheriff, of his admiration for her husband and by extension, Peg.


Ryan's vulnerabilities are denied by Sheriff Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerald), who blames him, in part, for her son's opioid addiction. She sees him as a user and parasite - a position Peg vehemently denies, while expressing her own disdain for the by-the-book sheriff. When Peg discovers her husband's antique tools, including a Winchester rifle, are missing from their shed, the sheriff blames Ryan.

The play, directed by Robert Falls, boasts strong performances - Weiler's Ryan is combustible and vulnerable, Fitzgerald's hard-core sheriff is coping with her own anger and loss, while Thompson's deputy is an interesting mix of sadness, grit and humanity.

The conflict that ensues, between Peg and the sheriff, the sheriff and Ryan, are all part of a larger backdrop. Swing State, set in 2021, gives a nod to the pandemic, without referencing it. The work has a blue vs. red feel, though it's not political. The only moment comes in reference to the town newspaper: "I canceled my subscription when they endorsed Trump," explains Peg.


Gilman is best known for Spinning Into Butter, which addresses racial issues on a college campus, and Boy Gets Girl, which confronts stalking and sexism.


But the plot line, though credible, isn't that compelling. And while audiences can appreciate skilled actors, that doesn't necessarily translate into an engagement with the characters. Wisconsin was a swing state in 2016, and the characters swing between various emotional states. Like the shrinking prairie, it's a struggle just to survive.


Swing State has touching scenes, but it's less viable as a whole.


Swing State, Minetta Lane Theater,

18 Minetta Lane,

Through Oct. 28

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission