Peg is unhappy, not just because her husband died a year ago, but also because it’s been ages since she’s seen a bat on the prairie that surrounds her house in rural Wisconsin.
“You want to see a bat?” Ryan asks, surprised.
“Of course I want to see a bat….They’re flying mammals for f—‘s sake.”
Peg is alarmed that local bats are being killed off by a fungus, and they’re not all
that are under threat. She worries about the scarcity of chorus frogs, whip-poor-wills, wildflowers, Monarch butterflies, nighthawks, the decimation of bugs so thorough that she calls it the “insect apocalypse.” She also worries about her friend Ryan, a troubled young man recently released from prison.
After listening to Peg’s catalogue of doomed wildlife, Ryan remarks sarcastically: “You’re a f—ing ray of sunshine.”
“Swing State,” a play running at Minetta Lane Theater that will eventually be an Audible Audiobook, is itself something of a catalogue of sadness and loss, its four human characters as devastated in their own individual ways as the flora and fauna around them. Yet, for all the trauma, I’m not being sarcastic when I call Rebecca Gilman’s play something close to a ray of sunshine. That can be the effect of a well-made play directed sensitively, solidly designed, and performed by a pitch perfect cast.
Peg (Mary Beth Fisher) is a pragmatic, literally down-to-earth nature lover whose husband Jim was a wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources for thirty years. It’s been a year since he suddenly died from a heart attack, but she still keeps his ashes on her kitchen shelf. She cares deeply for the fifty acres of prairie that they bought together years ago, but there are hints from the very first moments of the play that she’s thinking of leaving it all behind. While making zucchini bread, she takes the large knife she’s using for chopping, and tests it idly first against her wrist and then against her eye.
She and Jim first met Ryan (Bubba Weiler) when he was six years old and lost – which is something of the theme in his life. Soon after, his mother and then his father died. Peg and Jim looked after him, in an almost parental way, but couldn’t stop his drinking, which led to a bar fight with a friend that landed him in prison for three years. He’s been sober now for four years, but still has panic attacks.
And he’s made an enemy of the local sheriff, Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerald), who is still mourning the death of her son Jason, who had seemingly kicked his opioid addiction but then died from an accidental overdose. Kris blames Ryan for the death, because Jason relapsed after attending a party at Ryan’s house.
Kris recently hired as her deputy her niece Dani (Anne E. Thompson), who is herself recovering from a necessary divorce after a foolish marriage.
Thanks to both the playwright and the performers, these characters exhibit uncommon depth, specificity and wit. This is especially true of Peg and Ryan, but the two cops are turned into human beings too. The play reveals the kind of complex interrelationship typical of small town life. Dani and Ryan went to the same high school, a year apart. Kris’s family owns thousands of acres next to Peg’s fifty, and would love to get their hands on it. “No Callahan is ever going to own an inch of my land,” Peg says, disapproving of their attitude towards the land, and especially their profligate use of pesticides.
We come to sympathize with all the characters, feel their warmth, so much so that we might resist, or even resent, what happens to them, after the plot kicks in — a fairly classic one, involving a missing rifle — which hurtles us towards an abrupt and startling tragedy.
“Swing State” has a misleading title. Wisconsin is indeed a swing state, and Peg is at odds in several ways with her neighbors, including their politics: She canceled her subscription to the local newspaper when it endorsed Trump. But that’s a throwaway line. Although the story is on a personal scale, Gilman is going for something larger here, the feeling of despair because of the profound threats facing the world and all its creatures (including humans), but also the necessity of fighting the despair. “Swing State” ends with a coda that feels unrealistically generous, the characters unnaturally forgiving. But maybe the playwright is saying such determined sunniness is the only way we’ll survive.
Minetta Lane Theater through October 28
Running time: one hour 45 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $76 to $106
Written by Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Robert Falls
Scenic design by Todd Rosenthal, costume design by Evelyn Danner, lighting design by Eric Southern
Cast: Mary Beth Fisher as Peg, Kirsten Fitzgerald as Sheriff Kris, Bubba Weiler as Ryan, Anne E. Thompason as Dani