Rebecca Gilman’s new play Swing State, now playing at the Goodman Theatre, is not, as you might imagine from the title, about politics. At least not overtly. It is about the increasing levels of mistrust that continue to threaten to derail the American experiment. It is about the sad loss of natural spaces due to climate change and other man-made threats. It is, in a certain way, about the effects of Covid on us all. And, yes, the name of a certain former President does come up, though the play isn’t about him at all. Gilman, one of the best playwrights we have, is completely aware of the emotionally volatile state of the nation; however, she is much more interested in looking at the increasingly red “swing state” of Wisconsin at a macro level, examining a small group of people in one small town (the kind where, as they sing on “Cheers,” everybody knows your name). And what she ends up with here is an absolutely wonderful slice of life that, while it could have been set any time in the last few decades, somehow becomes many layers deeper because we understand that it is set in today’s world.
Goodman’s former artistic director Robert Falls directs, in his first post-retirement work for the theatre, and he comes back to a playwright whose works he has now directed six times over the past two decades. I think it is safe to say that he is one of the premiere interpreters of Gilman’s plays anywhere, if not absolutely the best, and he understands how to bring out her vibrant language and carefully crafted characters.
The main character here is Peg (Mary Beth Fisher), a retired schoolteacher who lives on the edge of one of the few remaining significantly sized parcels of natural prairie in the state, which she was charged by the previous owner with maintaining. She and her husband took this charge seriously for years, but he is gone now and she is left to handle it alone, while everywhere she turns uncovers memories of him. In the play’s opening scene, she contemplates using a knife to end her life, but she can’t do it. Too much still depends on her.
Peg does have help on the prairie. She has befriended a young ex-convict, Ryan (Bubba Weiler), a young man who has never had much in terms of adult guidance in his life, and he helps her out there when he’s not working. It’s easy to see the former teacher in her when she is conversing with him. Ryan has obviously never been much of a student, but he has been learning things about the prairie—its flowers, grasses, birds, etc.—that excite him, let him see beauty in the world, and provide hope where he’s never had any.
Of course, the world is not going to make things easy for him, and the police—in particular the gruff sheriff, played by Kirsten Fitzgerald—harass him at every turn. Sheriff Kris is absolutely certain that he must have returned to his old patterns, and she makes no secret of her dislike for him. (Things would probably be much worse for him if not for the presence of Dani, played by Anne E. Thompson, the sheriff’s niece who is now a deputy. Dani is everything her aunt is not, starting with open-minded and friendly.)
The plot of the play is initiated by Peg’s discovery of missing tools in her garage. She enlists the sheriff’s help in recovering them (they belonged to her husband and thus have sentimental value) but is appalled when the sheriff instantly focuses on Ryan, who lives next door, as the likely culprit. When Peg, not believing that for a second, tries to withdraw her complaint, Sheriff Kris refuses to allow it, explaining that it’s now a police matter and thus Peg can’t take it back. (Is this true? A person isn’t allowed to withdraw a theft complaint? Is this just a Wisconsin thing? What if she discovers that the “stolen” items had merely been misplaced?) Kris even prioritizes the case when she learns that an old rifle is also missing.
Peg, a self-described former hippie, is the opposite of the sheriff in just about every way. Even her goal of saving the prairie runs contrary to Kris, who would love to buy it up and develop it. Don’t worry, though: even though it may seem that way for a while—and even though Fitzgerald intentionally keeps the character distant from the others—Sheriff Kris is not a cartoon bad guy. Gilman is too good a writer for that. In fact, every one of these characters is developed far beyond a simple description.
Falls’ direction is fluid and flawless. He has the benefit of working on a great set by Todd Rosenthal that is probably the most realistic interior I’ve seen in a long time. Rosenthal has filled this house with all of the accumulated detritus of a long life. In fact, the house feels lived-in in ways that most interior sets don’t even think about: cabinets full of bowls and other kitchen accouterments, a living room crammed full of books and videos, etc. Is there a Jeff Award for Best Set Dressing? (Why not?) In any case, this very lived-in set also feels sadly empty: it’s way too much for one aging woman, and we can’t even see all of it. Those books and videos will never be watched again; they will just sit on the shelves forever. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman, also nearing the end of his life, feels “used up”; it’s easy to understand that Peg is feeling that way as well.
This is not a play about death, though Peg’s husband’s death hangs over her like a cloud a lot of the time. Instead, it is about the ways in which we walk through this world that we share with others. Some of us focus solely on the ugliness of the world and our fellow travelers. Some see the best in everything, whether it is a small chunk of a once-great prairie or a volatile ex-con. A “swing state,” politically, is one that can go either way in an election, but how we vote is reflected in how we choose to interact with each other…which is in turn affected by what we believe about our place in the world and our obligation to it and to each other. Gilman’s play understands this but also knows that we are all living in our own individual “swing states” of mind, caught between the pain and the beauty of life and our sometimes-overwhelming emotions. This is a play that takes place in a house even though it focuses a lot on the outdoors. It is a play in which four people who have always been parts of the same tiny community fail to see each other clearly or trust each other. It is perfect for this divisive and antagonistic point in history, where good intentions are often nowhere near enough.
Swing State is presented by Goodman Theatre and runs through Nov 13 at 170 N. Dearborn Rd., Chicago. For tickets and information, please visit Goodman Theatre or, call 312-443-3800. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.