The playwright Rebecca Gilman, an artistic associate at Chicago’s renowned Goodman Theatre, is probably best known around these parts for her 1999 work “Spinning into Butter,” which had its premiere at Lincoln Center the following year. Set at a predominantly white liberal arts college in Vermont, the play explored race relations with astonishing foresight and chutzpah, inspiring animated debate as well as a film adaptation starring Sarah Jessica Parker.
Ms. Gilman’s latest piece, “Swing State,” which also arrives in New York after an acclaimed run at the Goodman, will surely engender fewer strong feelings. Race is not an issue here, unless the notion of casting only white actors in the four roles — working-class characters living on or near a prairie in Wisconsin — strikes one as controversial. Nor, despite the title, is party politics: Neither the R-word nor the D-word is mentioned; the T-word only comes up once, and he’s the only elected official cited throughout, unless you count the play’s fictional sheriff.
Instead, “Swing State” focuses, with refreshing directness and immense grace, on issues that have been dividing humankind since long before our republic was formed: community and loss, and how we all struggle to sustain a sense of the former and deal with the latter. Ms. Gilman’s context, to be sure, is distinctly contemporary and American; the play unfolds in summer 2021, with its small-town residents still reeling from the Covid pandemic and the fallout of a contentious, and contested, election.
Peg, a retired guidance counselor who owns and manages the prairie’s property, has been especially isolated since her husband died a year ago after suffering a heart attack, just months into the shutdown and his retirement. Her only regular company, aside from a loyal dog and the other beloved but less interactive creatures who share the land, has come from Ryan, a young man for whom she and her late spouse had served as parental figures since his childhood.
Ryan’s own father died early, we learn, and alcohol destroyed his mother as well as eventually wreaking havoc with his own life; at 26, he has served three years in prison for felony battery, the result of a drunken brawl. If this string of hard knocks has made Peg enduringly protective of the play’s only male character, they have done little to endear him to the sheriff, Kris, who lost her own son to a fentanyl overdose.
Kris’s almost visceral resentment becomes an issue when a tool box containing a large firearm disappears from Peg’s home. The sheriff declares Ryan the chief suspect and begins pursuing her case with a vengeance; Peg, while regarding her with utter disdain, finds her own faith tested, as she grapples with even darker concerns and impulses.
Under the characteristically robust, compassionate direction of Ms. Gilman’s longtime collaborator, Robert Falls, a celebrated Broadway veteran, the actors bring earthy wit and palpable empathy to their parts. The rapport between Mary Beth Fisher’s deceptively composed Peg and Bubba Weiler’s turbulent but endearing Ryan is by turns funny and heartbreaking; Ms. Gilman litters their exchanges with references to the natural world, in which bats and wildflower seeds provide metaphors for the change and destruction surrounding them.
Kirsten Fitzgerald’s brusque, hardened Kris is very much Peg’s foil, a point emphasized by her desire to buy the prairie. (“You could make a lot of money off those oaks,” she tells Peg, who is predictably unmoved.) Yet Peg finds something of a spiritual protegée in Kris’s niece and deputy, Dani, a young divorcée — played with delicate humor and warmth by Anne E. Thompson — who seems better positioned than Ryan to learn from past mistakes.
“Miracles can’t survive if they don’t have anywhere to land,” Dani tells Peg toward the end. And that, “Swing State” suggests, can only happen when we find space both in our hearts and in the world around us.