The playwright Rebecca Gilman moved away from small-town Alabama long ago, but a soft Southern lilt still shapes her words. In all the years she lived and worked here in her adopted city of Chicago, she remained immune to its Bill Murray accent. The broad tones of nearby Wisconsin have likewise left no mark.
Rural Wisconsin itself, though, has burrowed deep in her soul. After more than a decade of traveling back and forth from Chicago, Gilman relocated full-time to Green County, Wis., about four years ago. If you want to send her into a soliloquy, just ask what she loves about the prairie. She will talk about its colors and how they change throughout the year — from white to pink to purple to a wind-stirred sea of yellow — and then she will venture into its metaphors.
“When you go to a prairie, it’s just teeming with life — butterflies, bugs, birds, everything,” she said on a stiflingly hot August afternoon in an upstairs lounge at the Goodman Theater, where her new play, “Swing State,” was in rehearsals for its New York run. “It’s an ecosystem. Everything depends on everything else. Some of the plants have to be pollinated by particular butterflies. Particular butterflies have to have lupine to lay their eggs. Monarchs have to have milkweed. And it is not a monoculture. It cannot thrive unless it’s as diverse as diverse can be.”
Gilman, 58, worries about the prairie’s destruction, but she acts on that fear, volunteering with an endearingly named group, the Prairie Enthusiasts, to protect the land. She worries, too, about threats to wildlife — like white-nose syndrome, which has killed millions of bats — so she recently trained as a “bat ambassador,” to raise awareness of their plight.
And like so many inhabitants of this bellicose, burning planet, Gilman worries about its survival if people cannot find a way to coexist and cooperate, at the most intimate local level and beyond. In “Swing State,” which is scheduled to begin previews on Friday, at the Minetta Lane Theater in Manhattan, she wrestles with that anxiety, and with the hopelessness that it can bring.
Directed by Gilman’s longtime collaborator Robert Falls, the play is set in what is known as the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, where the rolling landscape is untouched by glacial sediment, or drift. The principal characters are driftless, too — lacking the purpose that human beings require to thrive.
Peg, a recent widow in her 60s, cherishes the acres of ancient prairie on her land, and takes crotchety good care of her 20-something neighbor Ryan, a recovering alcoholic who looks out for her, too, as he scrambles to get his life together. But with the natural world in escalating peril, and her husband now just ashes in a box, Peg cannot summon the will to go on.
Set in 2021, “Swing State” is only subtly a play about the coronavirus pandemic, depicting the isolation that people felt in its early stages, and the knee-jerk, politicized hostility that arose around masks and vaccines. It is more interested in the ways that antagonism has replaced goodwill, and how lethal to community such hardheartedness can be.
When the play had its premiere at the Goodman last October, the critic Chris Jones wrote, in a rave review in The Chicago Tribune, that Gilman had captured “the feeling that America has atrophied, the sense that once-shared values have swung so far to the extremes that the bones of a nation have crumbled.”
Yet she frames it all in up-close, personal terms, using just four characters — all residents of the same tiny township. The story isn’t overtly about civic life; at the same time, it is hugely about civic life.
“The play, for me,” Falls said, perched in a cushy chair a few feet from Gilman, “is sort of about loss and everything we’re losing. One could say civility in politics. One could say very much the environment. One could say a democracy.”
For all the rough-and-tumble raucousness of the national shouting match, though, “Swing State” takes a gentle tone.
“In a way,” Falls said, “it becomes the quietest play, sitting in the middle of the biggest epic social circumstances.”
A TONY AWARD WINNER for his 1999 production of “Death of a Salesman,” Falls, 69, was nearing the end of his long tenure as the Goodman’s artistic director when he decided he wanted to stage one more Gilman play. It would be the sixth in a collaboration that began with her 2001 play “Blue Surge.”
In late 2020, when the pandemic was keeping him at home in Evanston, Ill., wondering darkly if actors would ever act without masks on, Gilman was at home in southern Wisconsin, not knowing if she would ever write another play — because, she said, “everything just seemed sort of pointless.”
But then he called her up and asked her to. Always, he said, he has felt a connection to her voice, and to the “moral sensibility” at the heart of her plays — a quality he ascribed to her deeply understanding “how the world truly works” yet rejecting “the cynicism of just throwing up your [expletive] hands.”
“I really wanted to do a new play by Rebecca,” he said, “to the point where it didn’t really matter what Rebecca wanted to write about.”
Gilman had two conditions, swiftly granted: that Falls would direct and that Mary Beth Fisher — who originated lead roles in two of Gilman’s best known plays, “Spinning Into Butter” (1999) and “Boy Gets Girl” (2000), both at the Goodman — would star.
As Gilman wrote the role of Peg for Fisher, she poured into the play what was on her mind. Even in those dire days when theaters were shut down and the industry’s future was grim, Gilman’s eyes were on a more collective danger.
“The world is in trouble,” she said. “It’s not just the theater that’s in trouble. The world is in trouble. And if the planet dies, all of our precious art is going to die with it. That was the urgency I was feeling. Like, can we create something that also communicates this?”
In her swing-state township that Joe Biden won by two votes, where she and her husband joke that maybe they tilted the balance, Gilman doesn’t really talk politics with people anymore: too hazardous.
“There’s so much potential for conflict and animosity,” she said, “that you kind of just don’t go down that road because you also have to live next to each other, where there aren’t very many people. You don’t want to make enemies of your neighbors. I don’t know my neighbors’ politics, and I don’t need to know, and I don’t want to know, because I need them if we get stuck in the snow, or they need me to come to their daughter’s high school graduation party.”
That polarity and interdependence are woven into “Swing State”; likewise what Gilman said was her fear of losing the people most precious to her, and her alarm at what was vanishing from her beloved outdoors.
“Despair is a really strong word,” she said. “But when you do go out into the natural world regularly, it’s impossible not to see what’s dying. It’s impossible not to see what we’re losing.”
When bird-watching became a popular pandemic activity, friends would ask her to take them. It gave them solace and gave her solace, too, but hers came with an asterisk.
“I was so happy that they were discovering it,” she said. “But at the same time, I was thinking, there used to be so many more birds here. Every time we’d go out, I’d think, oh, gosh, I wish you had come out with me 10 years ago. I wish you’d come out with me five years ago. The birds that we used to see here are not here anymore.”
Falls spent his first 13 years of life surrounded by cornfields in rural Illinois, where his mother’s side of the family were farmers. He has always preferred city to country, books to bird-watching. Yet when Gilman took him onto the prairie and handed him a pair of binoculars, he immediately made a rare sighting: a Henslow’s sparrow, a type of bird that figures poignantly in “Swing State.”
Theater people in general being fond of superstition, he took that as a “great omen” for the play. Maybe it was, given the show’s success so far — the accolades in Chicago, then the transfer of the Goodman production to New York by Audible Theater, which will record an audio version for wide release.
The play’s title, by the way, isn’t just about Wisconsin as a purple state. It’s about the characters’ emotional landscapes, Gilman said, “swinging between despair and hope.”
She has no interest in providing false hope, preferring to acknowledge reality. But she doesn’t want to knuckle under to despair, not least because it’s unfair to abandon the world’s troubles to generations that didn’t cause them.
So, she said, it’s a balancing act, one in which “meaningful work that makes the world better” — the kind her characters are in search of, and that she has discovered on the prairie — is part of finding a way to heal.
“Put despair and hope on the scale,” she said. “You’re going to have to work to make hope outweigh despair, but I do think it’s possible. And I do think that the work is necessary in a way it never has been before.”