Mary Beth Fisher and Bubba Wheeler Swing state.
Photo: Liz Loren

Rebecca Gilman sees many metaphors in the prairie, an ecosystem that may at first appear untamed and unproductive but follows its own precise laws and maintains a network of biological relationships that sustain life. In her play Swing stateThe film follows Paige (Mary Beth Fisher), a widow in her 60s, who has devoted herself to tending 40 acres of natural meadows around her farm in rural Wisconsin, which are encroached on on all sides by cultivated farmland filled with chemicals that seep into the soil and choke out weeds. Peg nature, and kill the insects that thrive there, thus starving birds and other animals. Prairie is the natural order of things. Farmland, human intervention. Or that prairies are the rare common space, and farmland is capitalism. Or, if you look at the political angle of this title, the prairie is whatever fragment of civic unity remains in America, and the farmland is the division and hatred encroaching on all sides.

The other thing you might want to be like on the prairie is the play itself Swing state It doesn’t quite achieve that. In her play, Gilman allows objective interpretations to proliferate like those wild weeds while limiting the space of her plot. Coming to New York after an acclaimed tour of Chicago with her crew from the Goodman Theater Slimma, Swing state It provides an effective and direct, if limited and realistic, look at our moment. It’s a good thing: it’s well acted, competently directed by Robert Falls, building over the course of a tense, ominous single act and exploding in its climax, but it never quite conjures the grotesque brutality that would make it great. You can find out where everything was planted here.

It’s early fall 2021, and Peg, a former teacher and guidance counselor, continues to work as best she can on her farm after the recent death of her husband. Her only regular visitor is Ryan (Bubba Wheeler), a recovering twenty-something ex-convict whom she seeks out by providing odd jobs at her house. Early on, Peg announces her plans to turn over the meadow to a wildlife conservation group and Ryan’s habitat after her death, but then some farm implements and an old rifle are stolen from her cabin. The ruthless local sheriff, Chris (Kirsten Fitzgerald), who happens to be related to the farmers surrounding Peg, suspects Ryan and leads an investigation, with the help of her more conciliatory student, Dani (Anne E. Thompson). , who is also a former student of Peg’s. These people, like the animals in the ecosystem around them, are stuck in a hostile environment, and begin attacking each other in order to survive.

Peg is a role Gilman wrote with Fisher in mind, and Fisher handles it with cool certainty. In her first scene, she’s alone making zucchini bread onstage in the middle of a 1970s orange-and-brown-filled kitchen and living room, designed by Todd Rosenthal, which shows a scrappy, liberal heart. – Plains atmosphere (“No TV!” Gelman notes in her text). Paige is experiencing complete ecological collapse in her mind, offering monologues about the state of the land around her—which insects are dead, which birds and reptiles may follow—in speeches that Fisher delivers in a matter-of-fact manner that only makes their outlook seem all the more apocalyptic. She’s warm, especially across from the tight-wound Ryan Wyler and the suavely anxious Danny Thompson, but also resolute and bleak. Her plan to give the land to the Trust includes ensuring that it is protected forever, “or until the end of the world. So, another fifteen years.”

Paige’s character is fascinating, especially at this moment: someone who believes in the right of community and dedicates herself to community service until you stop believing it still exists — exactly the kind of person who might be most wounded by the pandemic’s severing of social ties. The problem is that Gilman gives us too much of her despair too quickly: the play begins with the other characters realizing how depressed Paige is, but we see it in the first scene, just as Fisher is holding a knife as she does the chopping. Walnuts. This remains Swing state In a state of structural stasis, Peg holds herself in one emotional position until everyone else catches up with her. Too much of the play is busy catching up with us, often in gratuitous asides as the characters go back to history they both know — like Paige’s relationship with her dead husband, or the details of Ryan’s imprisonment — just for the sake of an audience.

As a result, production is pushing its guardrails. Fowles often directs the actors to sit at the kitchen table for long conversations, making the performances crunchy and exaggerated, as if they were trying to compensate for their limited physical range. Often, characters declare that they suddenly remembered that they needed to reveal something to each other. Wyler tends to over-emphasize Ryan’s nerves and exaggerate his breakdowns, while Thompson films Danny almost shrinking into the background. Small actions, such as when we see Fisher carefully extract seeds from a wildflower, go a long way toward breaking up the chatty monotony. Gilman can also be funny in a dark, Midwestern-appropriate way — there’s a good, dark thread about Dani using Paige’s lessons about being a guidance counselor while working as a police detective — but she lets a lot of the humor seep from this soil. More texture, whether from humor or another kind of human weirdness, would help complicate the relatively straightforward political analogy going on. With the title of the play in mind, Peg and Kris become alternate red and blue perspectives, fighting for the souls of the next purple generation of Ryan and Dani. Gilman ends up striving to find a left-wing middle ground — I struggled with a scene that implied Danny could still be a cop, but change the system by being good — something that might go down more easily if we could see the characters as people rather than To be people. Prototypes.

Once that stolen gun reappears, Gilman reaches a climax that’s brutal but also clearly predictable and limited, landing like a rubber mallet blow. I felt the tragedy and kicked it involuntarily, but I didn’t process it emotionally. There is perhaps a meta-tragedy in the fact that the same division and defensiveness that Page criticizes within the play made Gilman’s writing schematic and precise. Swing state She anticipates her explanations and makes sure to emphasize her points, but all this careful hedging is to her detriment. If only something less cultivated could grow here.

Swing state Located in the Minetta Lane Theater.

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