In Robert Falls’s staging, imported from the Goodman Theater in Chicago and presented here by Audible, every collision is clearly tuned. The scenes snap into place like machine-tooled puzzle pieces, with lighting (by Eric Southern), costumes (by Evelyn Danner) and music (by Richard Woodbury) that all but feeds the audience its emotional cues. And though Gilman does much to complicate the characters’ motives with back story that’s elaborately layered into the dialogue — so elaborately that at one point a character is forced to ask, “Why are you telling me this?” — none except Peg seem quite believable.
Fisher is able to absorb the complications into a rounded performance in which the complications feel surprising but not synthetic. She has more to work with, of course, as she is onstage for most of the play’s 105 minutes, but also more to build on, having been a Gilman regular, like Falls, for years. (In New York she played a stalking victim in Gilman’s “Boy Gets Girl” in 2001.) She seems to move through the variously depressed, angry, loving and resigned aspects of the character like a hawk gliding on thermals. You barely notice the turns.
In the play overall, though, you do. And until a thrillingly staged climax that moves unusually fast, you usually foresee the corners with plenty of room to prepare. The result is a play that seems becalmed on its surface despite the powerful emotions underneath — not just the characters’ emotions but the author’s.
Gilman, who now lives in the part of Wisconsin where the play is set, the so-called Driftless Area, is evidently passionate about the same things as Peg. She too has become a volunteer for the Prairie Enthusiasts, a group dedicated to protecting the Upper Midwest’s natural heritage. (In the play the group is called the Prairie Protectors or, more derisively, the Prairie Geeks.) And clearly Gilman is invested in her overarching metaphor, telling Laura Collins-Hughes in The New York Times that the human ecosystem, like the natural one, is “not a monoculture. It cannot thrive unless it’s as diverse as diverse can be.”
If only she had dramatized that, I could be more of a full-throated warbler in praising the play. What “Swing State” actually dramatizes, sometimes movingly, is despair. Its action is driven less by any visible coarsening of America’s democratic ecosystem than by depression, alcoholism, spite and bad luck.
If anything, it is about the “swing state” of individual emotion, regardless of politics. (Even the good liberal Peg is erratic and sometimes nasty.) Still, its message — because yes, there is a message in all plays featuring sinks with running water — applies to our personal as well as our national ecosystems: “You can’t give up even if you want to.”
Through Oct. 21 at the Minetta Lane Theater, Manhattan; swingstateplay.com. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.