A deep sense of loss pervades Rebecca Gilman's eloquent and poignant new play, The Swing State, which has its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre.
Sometimes the loss is very specific: Peg, the main character, played with welcome sarcasm and irony by Mary Beth Fisher, spent the past year mourning her husband when, shortly after his retirement, he suddenly died of a heart attack. Start of the covid-19 pandemic.
But sometimes the loss comes from something not tied to a specific event, but from a more general feeling that the whole world is falling apart, largely because of our kind. In rural Wisconsin, this emphasis on ecological decline translates into misguided nostalgia for what bats saw in abundance—before the fungus wiped out the population—in their failed attempts to feed on wildflower seeds.
Peg's grief has reached a point where she is clearly wondering if she should continue. In the opening episode, we see him thinking about how he could use a knife to cut himself. And the other characters see it too, as he decides to quickly deliver what he once loved.
However, this is not a series like Marsha Norman's Mother of the Night, where we see an open discussion about a possible suicide. Instead, this work, full of poignant humor that counters melancholy, reflects a state of mind between hope and desperate surrender. .
This psychological situation defines the "wavering state" of Gilman's title. There are other characters that react differently to damage. Ryan (Bubba Weiler) lost both his parents and ended up in jail after having a bad bar. , now as Peg's faithful surrogate to help keep her sober and stable. Chris (Kirsten Fitzgerald), Peg's neighbor and local sheriff, lost his son to a fentanyl overdose. Chris' granddaughter Dani (Annie E. Thompson) has lost her sense of identity due to divorce and is trying to find a new one while working as an MP.
But the title of the play also has an undeniable political significance. After the midterm elections in rural Wisconsin, the state that swung from Trump to Biden, it's clear that Gilman's theme here – hope versus despair – spans much of the country, a chasm that will eventually collapse one way or another. .
Although there is little real politics in this play, Gilman clearly depicts two different worldviews, partly reflecting our national differences.
Peg sees beauty and bounty in the conservation of the prairie. Chris sees only losses, or at least a lack of productivity. Peg tries to see the best in people, especially Ryan, perhaps because he makes his weaknesses so clear. Chris, perhaps because of his job, tends to see the worst and sees Ryan as a symbol of irreplaceability.
Robert Falls is directing the play, his first performance since retiring from the theatre's artistic direction. With confidence and care, she undermines the sentimentality of the most emotional scenes, but at the same time successfully conveys that caring for each other is the only cure for human suffering.
And Falls certainly brings out the best in his actors. The performances here are superb, making for a very thin plot involving stolen equipment and weapons.
Fisher and Fitzgerald make a great pairing, their differences of character combined with a sensibility—typical Midwestern practicality—that makes clear what they have in common.
Raised on the Chicago scene since appearing on Goodman in 2008, Weiler has tactfully covered up Ryan's weaknesses for as long as he can. and Ann E. Thompson is the least damaged of the characters and loves their depth and naturalness. a complaint
The ending here is not entirely satisfying, it comes to a dramatic moment and then resolves its consequences with a certain optimism that seems absurd. But Gilman, whose constant connection to plays and theater has made him the most produced living playwright in Goodman's history, produces an impressive performance in Swing State, full of sympathy for his characters and country, with deep melancholy.