How can we reconcile our most idealistic passions with the pragmatic demands of mundane life? It's a conundrum that, arguably, none of us ever really solves. So it is appropriate that Elizabeth Egloff's The Swan, which dives without apology into the mind-clouded murk of desire, leaves the viewer in a state of bittersweet befuddlement. It is a hard state to produce, and one that bears the tint of experience itself.
The plot is absolutely mad. The semi-employed Dora Hand (Jennifer Blagen) lives in a humble home in Nebraska, where she exists in a state of low-key inertia, awaiting the visits of her beau, married milkman Kevin (Chris Carlson). Dora, you see, is currently in a mode of lowered expectations after three failed marriages (two husbands left her, one killed himself the day after their wedding; I suppose one could say that he left her, too). She's marking time in the sort of existence where one sleeps on the sofa rather than in bed.
But this is no maudlin drama of unfulfilled romance (though one certainly brims under the surface). Instead, matters turn alarmingly allegorical when an object smashes into Dora's window in the middle of the night. It seems to be a swan, and she brings it inside in a basket. By morning, though, her intruder has become a naked man (Nathan Keepers), who bounds about her home squawking and hissing, craning his neck, crouching, and fixing her with a blank avian stare.
Carlson sees Keepers as a rival from the start, though the play holds back its verdict for a time on whether the milkman and Dora consider the swan to be man or beast. Soon enough Dora names her visitor Bill, dresses him in her former husband's clothes, and cheers on his progress in human speech.
Bain Boehlke directs, and his cast draws distinct identities from characters whose dialogue is often oblique if not entirely ambiguous. Keepers, his athletic intensity never flagging, captures the creepy subtexts in Bill's growing adoration for Dora. Blagen, with a mix of yearning and wariness, captures the almost accidental way that Dora turns Bill into a sort of ideal mate (for her). His entire world depends on her care, and his limited speech mostly contains tributes to her beauty.
Yet each day is not Valentine's Day for Dora. When Bill cries and coos in the middle of the night, Dora gives him her blanket and pillow for comfort, leaving herself exposed to the night. And when she offers him a chip, he grabs the entire bag. Eventually his dedication to her turns explicitly territorial, and he wraps himself around her legs and refuses to allow her to move.
Just when you're thinking you're watching an indictment of the way men love women (and believe me, when Bill gets drunk, turns surly, then goes needy, more than one man in the house must pull abashedly at his collar), Egloff subverts the script. Bill, it turns out, isn't just a pawn in the age-old gender wars. He is actually the product of Dora's own impossible ideals, made manifest in this fairy tale as a vehicle for her to escape to the infinite sky of the imagination. I would venture that there will be about as many interpretations as there are viewers.
Boehlke's set design, homely and full of detail, does its best to ground this untethered work, but ultimately what he's creating here is an aviary for ideas. In the program notes, Boehlke writes that The Swan is "perhaps a masterpiece." I share both the enthusiasm and the ambivalence inherent in that statement. When it comes to making sense of just what that swan is doing in a Nebraska den, we are all to some large extent winging it.