'Swing State' review — a dramatic pendulum swing of hope and despair

Read our review of Swing State, written by Rebecca Gilman and directed by Robert Falls, presented by Audible Theater at the Minetta Lane Theatre off Broadway.

Allison Considine
Allison Considine

Rebecca Gilman’s Swing State begins with Peg, played by Mary Beth Fisher, whisking zucchini bread batter and quietly muttering baking instructions to herself. Peg’s homey, honey-colored kitchen, designed by Todd Rosenthal, is filled with a menagerie of antiques. The scene paints a picture of contentment — until Peg grazes a chef’s knife against her forearm, then points it toward her forehead. Thankfully, she goes back to baking.

Audible Theater’s production of Swing State, now off Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre, first bowed at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last year. Under the deft direction of Robert Falls, the all-star cast mines the play's themes of loss, longing, and depression with a quiet edge and surprising humor.

Swing State, named in part for its divisive political setting in Wisconsin, also represents the liminal space between two opposing truths. Peg, a recent widow, swings from bouts of depression to sprinkles of hope. As the steward of a nearly 50-acre prairie, she delights in observing the cone flowers bloom and the sunrise over the bluff. She also feels despair that fewer nighthawks, monarch butterflies, and chorus frogs inhabit the endangered ecosystem.

Peg’s neighbor Ryan (Bubba Weiler) also swings between disparate states. The young man is protective of Peg, and he also seeks her support as he eases back into work and sobriety after serving time for a felony battery conviction. In one scene, when Ryan experiences a panic attack, Peg kneels beside him and leads him through a breathing exercise. She asks if she can help him find a counselor. “Why would I need a counselor when I got you?” he retorts.

Peg and her late husband, Jim, became surrogate parents to Ryan and visited him in prison. They even paid taxes on his house so that he’d have a home to return to. Peg, a former school guidance counselor, wants every species on the prairie to have a home to return to. She’s anxiously waiting for the Henslow’s Sparrow to migrate back to the land to nest. She tills the prairie, hoping wildflowers will sprout from season to season, finding a permanent home in the tall grass.

As part of her desire to preserve and promote life on the prairie, Peg asks Ryan to sign her will, which stipulates that he’ll receive her house and three acres, and a non-profit organization will take ownership of the remaining prairie land. “You’re being morbid as shit!” exclaims Ryan when she presents the paperwork.

Peg’s carefully laid out end-of-life plans falter when she discovers her late husband’s tools and prized Winchester rifle are missing from the barn. She contacts the police, setting off a series of dire events. The tough-as-nails Sheriff Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and her niece Dani (Anne E. Thompson), an open-hearted new deputy, play bad cop and good cop, respectively. They meddle in Peg’s life to solve the case of the mysterious theft — and place Ryan at the top of the suspect list.

Gilman’s drama takes audiences on a wayward chase through the pits and peaks of humanity to find the culprit. Like the dwindling prairie land, of which there is only four percent remaining in the U.S., the characters in the play must learn to fight the droughts and fires of life in order to regrow and survive.

Swing State is at the Minetta Lane Theatre through October 22. Get Swing State tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Mary Beth Fisher and Bubba Weiler in Swing State. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

Originally published on

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