Heroes of the Fourth Turning takes place entirely in the penumbral darkness of outdoor, rural Wyoming (effectively evoked by Laura Jellinek’s stark set and spectral lighting by Isabella Byrd), where four millennial friends with connections to a conservative Catholic college have reunited to celebrate the election of its first female president.
Setting aside his avant-garde experiments with time-collapsing and language that were deployed to disarming seriocomic effect in Plano, playwright Will Arbery gives himself a steeper challenge with his latest play. He asks a typically left-leaning theater audience to seriously consider a range of deeply held views from a quartet of right-wing Christians in real time over the course of a long, whiskey-and-coke-filled evening.
By design this is not an easy play to sit through (though some judicious editing would not be amiss), for Heroes does not ask us to agree with its characters. Arbery knows them well, and respects their fervor, but does not share their ideals. That he succeeds at times in both eliciting and challenging our empathy for them is a tribute to his skillful writing and to an ace ensemble under Danya Taymor’s precisely calibrated direction.
There’s ex-Marine Justin (Jeb Kreager, suggesting dangerous undercurrents), whose isolated house hosts this gathering, who believes that secession from the secular world is the best way forward. He takes gentle care of Emily (Julia McDermott, steely beneath her pain), who suffers from an unnamed, debilitating malady that has given her a new perspective on her once-certain beliefs. Glamorous, Coulter-esque Teresa (razor-sharp Zoë Winters), a right-wing blogger living in sin-filled Brooklyn, sees herself as a culture warrior, eagerly armed for conflict with over-caffeinated certainty. And slacker Kevin, (John Zdrojeski in a raw and perfectly pitched performance), who is most damaged by the enforced celibacy of this ethos, whining interchangeably about being compelled to love the Virgin Mary and his inability to find a girlfriend.
Special mention should be made of Justin Ellington’s sound design, which – some mysterious, ear-splitting effects aside – drops in faintly menacing sounds of the outside world encroaching on this rampart of conservatism. Armageddon is not an action movie for these characters; it’s an imminent crisis they must be prepared for.
The most incisive dialogue occurs between the newly elected president (Michele Pawk, mopping up the stage with her ironically Hillary-esque cameo) and her former students. The generational shifts in attitude highlighted in these exchanges are provocative, reflecting the play’s title, which refers to a largely discredited social theory of four historical cycles associated with recurring generational archetypes.
If the ideas that animate Arbery’s characters are unusual to encounter onstage, their past entanglements and current anomie are not. That doubts and disillusionment plague the other side of the political spectrum is perhaps not a surprise; to see it depicted skillfully onstage is unexpected and novel.