Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Heroes of the Fourth Turning
Heroes of the Fourth Turning provides this audience living in an area known as one of the most liberal and progressive in the nation the rare opportunity to walk in the shoes of those we often see as "them" in our currently politically divided nation. As much as we personally might disagree with many of the positions being so ardently proclaimed, we soon begin to understand that there are many degrees of differences among those we so often want to categorize as all the same–much as many on the right certainly feel about those they see as the radical left.
Returning young alum Teresa represents in some ways our worst nightmare of those on the far right–a young, cocky, sure-of-herself blogger for an alt-right site whose personal hero is Steve Bannon. Sarah Thermond gives an award-worthy performance of a Teresa whose arm-waving intensity, emphatic delivery, and almost messianic charisma is mesmerizing to watch while her message is often nauseating to anyone with even a slight bent to left of center politically and socially. Her Teresa is always on the soap box and speaks to her three friends in the volume and manner of addressing a huge auditorium.
Teresa is evangelical as she describes her full, undying belief in William Straus and Neil Howe's generational theory that outlines how in every eighty years or so, history goes through stages that end in a "fourth turning" of "crisis" where "heroes" stand up to fight (with arms and ammunition if necessary) to save democracy. She adamantly believes that we are now in that stage and that she and her friends are the Millennials who must be ready and prepared to be the fighting heroes to defeat the progressive left. Teresa's world is one of "we/they" and "blow for blow," where being "empathic" to anyone on the other side "breeds complacency" and is "politically irresponsible."
However, Teresa's three friends–all whom give at least lip service to her repeated declaration that abortion is "murder"–do not all fit neatly into her band of waiting heroes to take up arms. Justin, whose cabin is the site of the late-night party-of-sorts, has chosen largely to withdraw from society. He believes that the best way to defeat "the nice young liberal people" who are "trying to wipe us out" is to "block them out [and] focus on the Lord," "try to outlive them," and "bake bread, make wine, and work the earth." Will Livingston's friendly, country twang, easy interaction with his nearby guitar, and overall quiet, easygoing nature cannot hide the stark dichotomy of the pistol he carries in his back pocket or his hateful spew against all LGBT people.
Kevin is in many ways the opposite of Teresa, even though he so wants to be one of her heroes and to prove to her that he is a real warrior. Kevin not only is a drunken mess much of the evening, but his own sense of self-worth is on the other end of the scale from Teresa's overblown ego and self-confidence. "I think there is a demon in me ... I'm not OK ... I'm the worst," he moans and cries in many different ways (often with alcohol-enabled, remorseful tears while wallowing on the ground). He has questions that range from why Catholics must love the Virgin Mary ("Why do I feel so angry about [her]?") to why Catholics must always be conservative politically–questions that show he has both doubts and curiosity while he also struggling to be as hardcore as he thinks Teresa wants him to be. Tim Garcia is magnificent as this blubbering mess seemingly on the verge of a total breakdown. His body seems to be made of rubber as he twists and turns his bony hands, flails like a madman with his arms, or wraps his torso into a near pretzel, all the while raising with pointed clarity questions that make his friends uneasy.
The character who has perhaps the most conflict with the arch-conservative belief system she still from time-to-time purports is Emily, daughter of the president-to-be and victim of a debilitating, unnamed disease (most likely Lyme disease). Even as she struggles to walk a few steps with cane in hand or bends over gasping in sudden attacks of sharp pain, April Culver's soft-spoken Emily exudes a sunny disposition, constantly assuring, "I'm OK; I'm OK." But weak she is not as she quietly but adamantly suggests that some of the people she has met on that other side of Teresa's great divide (e.g., a woman who works for Planned Parenthood) are actually "kind," "altruistic," and "good"–claims that lead Teresa down a path on the verge of equating Emily's more liberal friends to Nazis. Emily is a believer in practicing empathy even for those with whom she fundamentally disagrees. Emily's fevered dream born from that empathy for a Black woman seeking an abortion gives actress April Culver the opportunity to give the most stunning and disturbing performance of the evening.
Into this mix of twenty/thirty-something friends who waver between moments of playful re-bonding and periods of pointed, hurtful clashes comes sixty-something Gina, the now slightly tipsy honoree of the day. Gina is at times motherly to these, her former students (with a "dear" and a "honey" sprinkled around to all). At other times, she lashes out with a sharp tongue, especially when she takes on the beliefs of Trump/Bannon-loving Teresa. Gina is a self-reported "Goldwater Girl" who at one time wanted Pat Buchanan to be president. However, she is appalled and expresses deep disappointment in the alt-right declarations of her once-star-pupil, Teresa, setting up a war of words and insults between these two conservatives that would likely make any such meeting between a liberal and a conservative seem mild in comparison. As this representative of what the Republican Party once was, Lee Ann Payne impressively employs a slight Southern drawl as Gina soothes and supports her former students while at the same sharpens her tone to counter the more recent Trump-era beliefs that are even more far right than her own faith-and-conservative-based ones.
Thus, the audiences learn that not all arch conservatives are alike, any more than all liberals and progressives in our own Bay Area are always like-minded or even civil to each other. However, the lesson does not always come easily in Arbery's Heroes of the Fourth Turning. The playwright has structured the script and its flow in a form somewhat resembling a fugue, that musical form where a theme is announced by one vocal part and then imitated by other parts in interwoven successions. In this play, each character has one or more rather long monologue, often given almost as a staged performance while the others sit/stand silently spell-bound (or shocked). We get a prolonged lesson on the Fourth Turning theory by Teresa, a rather bizarre "The Grateful Acre" story by Justin, a bizarre poem by William Wordsworth by a drunken Kevin, and a recapitulation of her presidential acceptance speech by Gina. At times, these departures from the back-and-forth banter and bicker zap the production's otherwise high energy and leave us as scratching our heads and wondering, "Huh? Why?"
Seafus Chatmon has turned the Los Altos Theatre into the forested wilds of Wyoming with a design whose log cabin and fire circle setting become all the more real through the bird-and-cricket-enhanced sound design of Ken Kilen and the dark-cornered, shadowy lighting design of Mykal Philbin. Lisa Claybaugh's costume designs fit the varied personalities of the five characters we meet to a "T".
In the premiere of his Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Will Arbery accomplished something that seems rarely to happen: Agreement from both the critics of liberal New York publications like The New York Times and those of the conservative Catholic Herald and The American Conservative. that audiences have the rare opportunity to see a play that allows varying ultraconservative views to be heard with no judgment one way or the other. For Los Altos Stage Company audiences who probably on the whole lean left in their political views and liberal in their social beliefs, Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a good lesson for any of us who think we know what the "other side" is really like and who clump them all into a description that fits what we read daily on HuffPost or in the posts/shares of our like-minded friends on FaceBook.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning runs through February 18, 2024, at Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos CA. For tickets and information, please visit losaltosstage.org or the box office Thursday and Friday, 3 6 p.m. at the theatre's box office, or call 650-941-0551.