, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Wisconsin’s Driftless region is the setting for Rebecca Gilman’s off-Broadway play, ‘Swing State’

Divisive politics, climate change, COVID-19 and death are all tackled in New York City production

A woman stands over a table showing something to a younger man who is sitting in a chair to her right. They are on a well-lit stage. The set behind them looks like a kitchen.
Mary Beth Fisher as Peg (left) and Bubba Weiler as Ryan perform Rebecca Gilman’s play “Swing State” at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 2022. Photo by Liz Lauren for Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Inc.

In a lower Manhattan off-Broadway theater, tucked away from the traffic and bright lights, an old farm house nestled on 40 acres of remnant prairie introduces theatergoers to a Wisconsin woman making zucchini bread, and Rebecca Gilman’s play “Swing State” begins.

The play, set “somewhere in the Driftless area of Wisconsin” in the late summer of 2021, follows the ordeals of Peg as she tackles COVID-19, climate change, pollution, divisive politics and more while grappling with the loss of her late husband, Jim.

Gilman and lead actor Mary Beth Fisher recently joined Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show” to talk about the play. Gilman said her last decade living in Wisconsin and her experiences volunteering with environmental groups, such as the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and The Prairie Enthusiasts, inspired her to write “Swing State.”

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
“Swing State” director Robert Falls (left) and playwright Rebecca Gilman outside the Minetta Lane Theater on opening night in September. Photo by Tricia Baron for Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Inc.

“I just really fell in love with the land here and with the idea that we live in a place that needs to be saved,” Gilman said. “But unfortunately, we’re seeing it disappear around us. Our natural world is really degraded.”

Her characters are touched by the opioid crisis, too. Gilman said she remembers talking to the spouse of a bailiff and being surprised by what she learned.

“I asked him, ‘What are people mostly in jail for?’ I was thinking like driving while intoxicated or something. He said ‘Heroin.’ And I was like, ‘Heroin in rural Wisconsin?’ It blew my mind.”

To Gilman, divisive politics portrayed in the play resemble reality in Wisconsin.

“You don’t want to become so divided against one another that you can’t be good neighbors to one another,” Gilman added. “A lot of the characters in the play, even though they probably would never vote for the same candidate, are thrust together by circumstances that force them to take care of each other and recognize each other’s humanity.”

In preparation for playing the role of Peg, Fisher spent time on Gilman’s land to learn about Peg’s passion for that environment.

“I got to… really explore and understand the beauty of Peg’s world,” Fisher said. “(Peg works) to protect the wildlife that live in a very precarious state. She’s very aware of their diminishing numbers.”

Fisher and Gilman have a long history of working together. Fisher was the first actor to play the lead role in three of Gilman’s other plays. With “Swing State,” Gilman had Fisher in mind from the beginning.

“I wrote this part for Mary Beth,” Gilman said. “She was the person I wanted to work with again the most. I can see when we’re in rehearsals (if) something’s not landing with her. And then I’ll think, ‘Oh yeah, that line is bad… I need to go back and fix this.’ We seem to catch it simultaneously.”

“It’s a pretty effortless collaboration,” Fisher added. “Rebecca knows that I’ll give 100 percent to everything she writes. If something’s not filtering through my emotional system in a way that’s truthful, she recognizes that without my having to say it.”

“She says she gives 100 percent,” Gilman interjected. “She gives 1,000 percent in her work.”

Two of the three other characters in “Swing State” were also written for the actors who play them. The last character, Ryan, was the only one written without someone in mind.

“When Bubba (Weiler) auditioned, I went, ‘Well, there’s Ryan. There’s my character.’ I feel like I wrote the part for him,” Gilman said.

“Swing State” is being produced in New York City by Audible Theater, which is set to publish a live recording of the play over its podcast streaming service. Gilman said it’s “not exactly a stand-in” for going to see the show in person, but the recording will make the play accessible.

At the end of the month, Peg, her farm house and the zucchini bread will be gone, and the prairie land will disappear from lower Manhattan. The Minetta Lane Theatre will belong to New York once again.

Until then, Peg will be there to tell her story.

The original cast of
The original cast of “Swing State” accepts a standing ovation on opening night at New York City’s Minetta Lane Theater in September 2023. (Left to right: Kirsten Fitzgerald as Sheriff Kris, Bubba Weiler as Ryan, Mary Beth Fisher as Peg and Anne E. Thompson as Dani) Photo by Tricia Baron for Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Inc.

Related Stories