Sep 18, 2023

Swing State: A Review – Uncovering Unrest in Wisconsin

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In Robert Falls’s production, originally from the Goodman Theater in Chicago and now presented by Audible, every collision is meticulously orchestrated. The scenes seamlessly interlock, akin to precision-engineered puzzle pieces, with the lighting (expertly handled by Eric Southern), costumes (courtesy of Evelyn Danner), and music (composed by Richard Woodbury) almost telegraphing the audience’s emotional cues. Although Gilman delves deep into the characters’ motivations, intricately weaving their backstory into the dialogue – to the point where one character must ask, “Why are you telling me this?” – only Peg truly comes across as believable.

Fisher skillfully navigates the complexities, delivering a well-rounded performance where the intricacies feel both unexpected and authentic. Granted, she has more to work with, being on stage for the majority of the play’s 105 minutes. Moreover, having been a regular collaborator with Gilman, much like Falls, for years, she brings a depth that allows her to seamlessly glide through the character’s various emotional states – from desolation and anger to affection and resignation. Her transitions are so smooth that they go virtually unnoticed.

However, the same cannot be said for the play as a whole. Up until an exhilaratingly executed climax that unfolds at an unusually brisk pace, most of the plot’s twists are telegraphed well in advance. Consequently, the play often seems to languish on the surface, despite the potent emotions bubbling beneath – not only the characters’ emotions but also those of the playwright.

Gilman, who now resides in the play’s Wisconsin setting, known as the Driftless Area, evidently shares a fervor for the same causes as Peg. Like her character, she has taken on the role of a volunteer for the Prairie Enthusiasts, a group dedicated to preserving the natural heritage of the Upper Midwest. In the play, this group goes by the name Prairie Protectors, or somewhat less flatteringly, the Prairie Geeks. Clearly, Gilman is deeply invested in her overarching metaphor, as she remarked to Laura Collins-Hughes of The New York Times that the human ecosystem, akin to the natural one, thrives on diversity, asserting that it “cannot thrive unless it’s as diverse as diverse can be.”

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If only the play had chosen to emphasize that aspect, I would be wholeheartedly enthusiastic in my praise. However, “Swing State” primarily dramatizes despair, albeit at times with moving moments. Its narrative is propelled less by any discernible deterioration in America’s democratic system and more by the overwhelming presence of despair, alcoholism, spite, and unfortunate circumstances.

If anything, the play delves into the “swing state” of individual emotions, transcending politics altogether. Even the well-intentioned Peg is portrayed as erratic and occasionally unpleasant. Nevertheless, the underlying message — for, indeed, all plays featuring sinks with running water carry some message — resonates with both our personal and national ecosystems: “You can’t surrender, even if you feel the urge to do so.”

Swing State
Through Oct. 21 at the Minetta Lane Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

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