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Heroes of the Fourth Turning

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - October 7, 2019


John Zdrojeski, Zoë Winters, Jeb Kreager, and Julia McDermott
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's a question I've put to several fellow theatergoers, and some people in the business, never getting a satisfactory response: Why are conservative viewpoints so seldom rendered sympathetically onstage? Oh, there was Maxwell Anderson, decades ago. And conservatives often show up in musicals, usually as villains and not often with much depth, in everything from Finian's Rainbow to Hairspray to The Prom. But theater doesn't generally embrace the Fox News crowd or their predecessors. Why are there so few right-wing playwrights? I'd like to think it's because they lack the imagination, but I can't prove it. Or are they writing, but spurned by a largely lefty theatrical environment?

It's a situation Will Arbery strives admirably to correct with Heroes of the Fourth Turning, his new and timely drama at Playwrights Horizons. In a long and thoughtful program note, Arbery explains that he was raised conservative, and still he loves the Wyoming community where he was brought up. But he turned away from it politically, voting for Obama in 2008 — and to observers from his past, "My vote had transformed me into them."

Thus this largely autobiographical drama, set in a backyard in a Wyoming backwater on a not-that-warm night in August 2017. Everyone on that stage is far-right, and Jesus-loving, and you'd expect a New York audience largely to hate them all. Not the case. It's the tail end of a party, and a reunion for several former students of the local religious university, run by the much-loved Gina (Michele Pawk). She delivered a fiery right-wing speech that afternoon, and they're all there to bow to her — all, that is, except her daughter Emily (Julia McDermott), ravaged by Lyme disease and usually bedridden, but she rested up for this night and has a lot to say. Also present: Kevin (John Zdrojeski), up from Oklahoma, a sad-sack religious writer who badly needs a girlfriend, which becomes a not entirely successful running gag; Teresa (Zoë Winters), the smartest and fastest-talking of the bunch, now a blogger in enemy territory, Brooklyn; and Justin (Jeb Kreager), whose backyard this is, mostly mild-mannered and helpful, but he sure can explode — and, like everybody else, he has a past.

Nothing much happens. Arbery calls his play a "fugue," and that's an apt description, a contrapuntal rendering of philosophies, rooted in Christian devotion, but spreading into far-reaching branches. Emily seems the nicest of the bunch, the most questioning of far-right dogma and the most willing to entertain alternative viewpoints. But she has her boiling point; in fact, Arbery gives her, along with everyone else, something of a nervous breakdown. He also gives everybody at least one big speech. Teresa has three — about the Virgin Mary, abortion, and how much the other side hates them. No matter your political persuasion, you have to admit she's an impressive talker, and Winters is a real firecracker in all three.

See, unlike Velma von Tussle (Hairspray) or Senator Billboard Rawkins (Finian's), these people aren't idiots. They care about one another, they quote everyone from Aristotle to Flannery O'Connor, and they've arrived at their philosophies through what seems, to them, careful reasoning. Of course, you're bound to disagree with much or all of it. But it's refreshing to hear such viewpoints so ably articulated, and devoid of caricature. "I'm representing their positions with a goal of impartiality," writes Arbery. "You can do what you want with that access." Further, these positions carry a surprise or two: These five aren't very fond of Trump, he's just preferable to That Woman. There's more affection among them for Steve Bannon, but even that's muted. What most of us would consider homophobic and racist outlooks do roam the stage, but it's not like opposing views haven't been explored, and such intolerance is generally entrenched, however shallowly, in what they'd consider the Word of God.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning — the title refers to a theory of political historical cycles, and Teresa articulates it better than I can — does have its structural curiosities. At an intermissionless two hours-plus, it's wordier than it has to be, and several of the conversations go nowhere. Considering that nearly all the characters admit to being drunk as hell, they alternate unconvincingly between inebriated rambling and super-succinct philosophizing. And a last-minute plot twist, introducing a supernatural (godly?) element, is hard to swallow. Production-wise, Laura Jellinek's set isn't much, Isabella Boyd lights it so dimly that you can't always see the actors' reactions, and Sarafina Bush's costumes are so off-the-rack that you barely notice them, which may be a compliment. Justin Ellington's sound design, from the crickets to the cars to a really startling surprise, is excellent. Danya Taymor directs with great pacing, knowing when to let the ideas race forward and when to hold back, and the whole cast is terrific, with Winters and McDermott, in the showiest roles, particularly splendid. The silent opening, with Justin on his back porch just meditating, may lead you to expect a slow evening; don't worry, it isn't.

In a climate where extremists of both persuasions are, as Teresa notes, increasingly mutually hostile, Arbery is performing something of a public service. Both sides are in their bubbles, the lack of interaction allows the mutual misunderstandings to fester and multiply, and social media makes the bifurcation so much worse. Shouldn't we make an effort to pop those bubbles, a little? This liberal tries to watch five minutes of Fox News a week, which is about as much as I can take. Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a step toward increasing the dialogue — oh, so that's what that side thinks, and why they think it. Thank you, Mr. Arbery. And playwrights of the right, if you're out there, let this be an incentive: With characters and arguments this compelling, you may actually get produced.


Heroes of the Fourth Turning
Through October 27
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42 Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral


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