Metro Weekly

‘Swing State’ Off-Broadway Review: State of Concern

The new Off-Broadway play "Swing State" serves up a potent warning about America's volatility.

Swing State: Mary Beth Fisher and Bubba Weiler -- Photo: Liz Lauren
Swing State: Mary Beth Fisher and Bubba Weiler — Photo: Liz Lauren

A toolbox is missing, and a rifle is stolen. Such things are high drama in a remote and rural township of Wisconsin, the setting for Rebecca Gilman’s pensive Swing State (★★★★☆). Last year, the drama played to sold-out crowds at Chicago’s Goodman Theater and received critical raves. Now it’s arrived in New York City with its original cast intact.

The Minetta Lane Theatre is an ideal, intimate venue for this four-person piece that examines the human conditions of isolation, loneliness, depression, substance abuse, fear, mistrust, and sadness. To paraphrase a sarcastic line from the play itself, “That’s a fucking ray of sunshine.”

Indeed there is a desperate cry for help in Gilman’s writing. But there is also plenty of space for hope. The title suggests that audiences are in for yet another diatribe about politics. So many works post-2016 were anti-Trump sentiments and warnings of dictatorships.

Good though many of them were, they simply preached to left-leaning theater audiences. It’s not that Swing State avoids politics altogether. But it is woven into the piece so effortlessly and subtly that it becomes more of a component in the overall, collective consciousness of America.

The title instead refers to the people in this community. In a recent New York Times interview, the playwright shared her view. “It’s about the characters’ emotional landscapes, swinging between despair and hope,” Gilman said.

Despair is a common feeling for Peg (Mary Beth Fisher). It’s the middle of the pandemic in 2021. Her husband Jim, one of her few companions on her sprawling prairie and huge farmhouse, passed away leaving her to care for the property alone.

She’s even contemplated self-harm, plotting her demise so that she would be found by Ryan (Bubba Weiler), a twenty-something local who was taken under Peg and Jim’s wing as a child. Ryan’s father died and his mother didn’t want to have much to do with him. But he’s deeply troubled, having battled alcoholism, opioid addiction, and jail time.

Ryan is quite familiar with the property so obviously, he’s the prime suspect for the thefts — at least according to Sheriff Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerald). She knows Ryan — and Peg. Everyone knows everyone in this small town. She’s also harboring a personal grudge against Ryan, believing that he was a pill pusher who caused her son to overdose.

Now she’s the Javert to Ryan’s Jean Valjean, hellbent on incriminating and incarcerating him again. Anne E. Thompson rounds out the quartet as Dani, Kris’ niece and her deputy sheriff. Dani was classmates with Ryan. Thompson has the face of an angel and a quiet steadiness. She completely embodies the archetype “nice girl” that was present in so many of our high schools.

Swing State: Anne E. Thompson, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Mary Beth Fisher -- Photo: Liz Lauren
Swing State: Anne E. Thompson, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Mary Beth Fisher — Photo: Liz Lauren

Although the play is a mere 100 minutes, it gets off to a sluggish start. But listen carefully. Peg’s despair and desperation comes from a deep place of concern. The entire ecosystem of bugs, birds, insects, and other living creatures is dying. Year after year, these creatures are dying off, the result of climate change and human negligence. It’s a subtle plea from Gilman, who now lives in Wisconsin and witnesses nature’s decline.

In the same Times interview, she explained that during lockdown, she would invite friends to go bird watching. “I was so happy that they were discovering it,” she said. “But at the same time, I was thinking, there used to be so many more birds here. Every time we’d go out, I’d think, oh, gosh, I wish you had come out with me 10 years ago. I wish you’d come out with me five years ago. The birds that we used to see here are not here anymore.”

Through Peg, she sounds the alarm about the loss of American land. “There used to be millions and millions of acres of it, all down the middle of the country, but there’s only about four percent left now,” Peg points out to Ryan. A cursory Google search reveals that the grim statistic is accurate.

But while Gilman is offering uncomfortable truths, she is also capturing a realistic portrait of our country in the present moment. We cannot possibly solve all of the world’s ills, but through meaningful community connection, concern for the environment, attention to mental illness, and a sincere effort to improve, she reminds us that all is not lost.

Robert Falls directs this gripping piece of theater, performed by an unbeatable cast. Todd Rosenthal has created a sprawling and detailed farmhouse of a set for the small cast and space.

Rarely has a quiet drama had so much to say about America without proselytizing or pandering.

Swing State is playing through Oct. 28 at the Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, in New York City. Tickets are $56 to $111. Visit

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