Goodman's superb 'Swing State' examines grief, loss in America's heartland while offering a glimmer of hope

  • Mary Beth Fisher stars as a grieving widow coping with loss during the COVID-19 pandemic in Goodman Theatre's premiere of "Swing State" by Rebecca Gilman.

    Mary Beth Fisher stars as a grieving widow coping with loss during the COVID-19 pandemic in Goodman Theatre's premiere of "Swing State" by Rebecca Gilman. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

 
 
Updated 10/20/2022 5:18 PM

"Swing State" -    

That Goodman Theatre's superb "Swing State" moves audiences from laughter to tears is no surprise. Plenty of plays do that. What is noteworthy about Rebecca Gilman's powerful new drama is how it elicits those contrary emotions within nanoseconds of each other -- within a single line of dialogue, even. And more significantly, how its humor and its pathos are entirely earned.

 

Beautifully staged by outgoing artistic director Robert Falls -- who first collaborated with Gilman in 2001 and has directed six of her 10 plays produced at Goodman, including eight world premieres -- "Swing State" is a compelling, deeply human tale of loss and grief, depression and fear.

Bubba Weiler plays Ryan, a 26-year-old recovering alcoholic and bread truck driver, in Rebecca Gilman's Wisconsin-set "Swing State" premiering at Goodman Theatre.
Bubba Weiler plays Ryan, a 26-year-old recovering alcoholic and bread truck driver, in Rebecca Gilman's Wisconsin-set "Swing State" premiering at Goodman Theatre. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

The title and the setting -- summer 2021 in the fictional, rural community of Cardiff Township, Wisconsin (a state that swung from Donald Trump to Joe Biden in the 2020 election) -- and a premiere less than a month before the midterms suggest a play where politics figure prominently. But politics get only a fleeting reference in "Swing State," whose title refers to the characters' shifting psychological states, not necessarily their philosophical differences.

Its power rests in its compassion for its imperfect characters -- of all political persuasions -- who are managing as best they can. The issues they confront -- depression, addiction, environmental degradation and ineffectual policing -- cut across party lines. What these residents of rural America share is heartache rooted in loss and compounded by a pandemic that forced them to face their sorrow alone.

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Anne E. Thompson, left, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Mary Beth Fisher star in Goodman Theatre's premiere of Rebecca Gilman's "Swing State" directed by outgoing artistic director Robert Falls.
Anne E. Thompson, left, Kirsten Fitzgerald and Mary Beth Fisher star in Goodman Theatre's premiere of Rebecca Gilman's "Swing State" directed by outgoing artistic director Robert Falls. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

That much is apparent from the beginning as we watch 60-something Peg (Mary Beth Fisher, a wellspring of feeling, delicately conveyed) shuffle into her farmhouse kitchen at 11 p.m. on a Friday -- her shoulders stooped, her slippers flapping against the floor. We sense her melancholy even before we witness the depth of her sadness evidenced when she quite obviously contemplates self-harm. She's interrupted by her neighbor Ryan, a recovering alcoholic played with sensitivity and vulnerability by the terrific Bubba Weiler. A traumatized, fatherless young man with an alcoholic mother, Ryan is something of a surrogate son to Peg and her late husband Jim, a wildlife biologist who died from a heart attack a year earlier as the pandemic commenced.

Released from prison after serving time for a fatal bar fight, Ryan -- more intuitive and less gruff than he appears -- drives a bread truck. In his spare time, he helps Peg maintain the 50 acres of prairie she and Jim cultivated over the last 20 years.

Ryan (Bubba Weiler) and Dani (Anne E. Thompson) bond over high school memories and their affection for their former guidance counselor in Goodman Theatre's premiere of "Swing State."
Ryan (Bubba Weiler) and Dani (Anne E. Thompson) bond over high school memories and their affection for their former guidance counselor in Goodman Theatre's premiere of "Swing State." - Courtesy of Liz Lauren
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Peg and Ryan aren't alone in their struggles. Peg's overbearing neighbor Sheriff Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerald) lost her son to a drug overdose and takes out her resentment on Ryan, who survived his addiction. Lastly there is Kris' niece, the unfailingly decent Dani (a warm, candid Anne E. Thompson), a newly sworn deputy finding purpose after divorcing her cheating husband.

Gilman, Falls and this enormously talented cast are a winning combination. The acting -- under Falls' surehanded, unobtrusive direction -- is exceptional. Authentic and effortless, the performances suit Gilman's forthright, empathetic writing best evidenced by those four singular moments around Peg's farmhouse table -- beautifully acted duets -- where confessions and apologies are shared, where true communion occurs. And where hope, however slight, takes root.

• If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 any time, day or night.

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Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800, goodmantheatre.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 13. Also 7:30 p.m. Nov. 1

Tickets: $25-$75

Running time: About 1 hour, 45 minutes; no intermission

Parking: Nearby garages, discounted parking with Goodman Theatre validation at the Government Center Self Park on the southeast corner of Clark and Lake streets

Rating: For adults, contains strong language and subject matter that may be upsetting to some audience members

COVID-19 precautions: Masks recommended

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