“You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Samuel Beckett’s now-legendary quote should be embroidered on a pillow found in the semi-cluttered first floor of a Wisconsin farmhouse (magnificently designed by Todd Rosenthal). That’s because the vast home is owned by the recently widowed, deeply unhappy Peg (an equally magnificent Mary Beth Fisher), the central character of Rebecca Gilman’s engrossing and moving four-character drama “Swing State,” now getting its New York premiere at the Audible Theatre at Minetta Lane Theatre under the pitch-perfect direction of the legendary Robert Falls.
That’s not a spoiler: The fact that Peg vacillates between despair and acceptance is made apparent in the first scene of the play, as she twice considers using the knife she has in her hand – to make zucchini bread – on herself. At first, we’re not sure what has driven her to this drastic mental stage, but we soon learn she is living a life of not just quiet desperation but semi-isolation. It’s a human condition many of us can relate to, especially those of us who vividly remember the early days of the COVID epidemic. (The play is set in the summer of 2021.)
It doesn’t help that her home is in the sparsely populated Driftless area of Wisconsin. Her husband, Jim, dropped dead suddenly about a year ago, leaving her devoid of daily companionship. She also has little use for her neighbors, especially those who voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election. (She has even cancelled the local newspaper after they supported Trump’s presidential campaign).
Indeed, her only company is her (never-seen) dog Walleye and 26-year-old Ryan Severson (an explosive Bubba Weiler), an equally unhappy ex-con and recovering alcoholic whom Peg has long treated as a surrogate son despite his often-surly behavior. Ryan’s existence gives her some purpose – she often cooks his meals – as well as an audience for her long ramblings about how possible climate change is threatening the existence of local wildlife and the many plants that are grown on the 48-acre prairie she owns near her house. (Gilman, who now lives in Wisconsin, apparently shares her concerns)
For a bit “Swing State” feels like it may be all talk – especially about that prairie -- and no action, but the play quickly pivots when a box of old tools and an even older rifle are suddenly stolen from Peg’s garage. Ryan becomes the prime suspect, at least in the eyes of the town sheriff, Kris (a blustering Kristin Fitzgerald). She and Peg are frenemies, at best, and Kris has long blamed Ryan for the “accidental overdose” death of her son, Jason – which leads to a brief if timely discussion of the national opioid epidemic.
Although Peg wants the charges dropped, Kris won’t let up. Nor will her deputy – and niece – the sweet-natured, smarter-than-she seems Dani (the excellent Anne B. Thompson), who believes she’s finally found her purpose in life by becoming a policewoman, after failing at several other jobs and having been divorced after an ill-advised marriage to her high-school boyfriend.
To say more of what unfolds would give away Gilman’s beautifully designed plot. Still, one should attend “Swing State” not just for what happens, but to revel in Gilman’s gorgeous use of everyday dialogue. Most of all, one should witness the extraordinary performances of this four-person ensemble – especially Fisher, who fully inhabits Peg with extraordinary subtlety and humanity.
Not only must we all go on; you must go to see this very special evening of theater.
By Brian Scott Lipton
Visit the Site
Mary Beth Fisher, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Anne E. Thompson, Bubba Weiler, Laura T. Fisher, Jessica Ervin, Jack Lancaster
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane
New York, NY 10012