For many citizens of the Northeast, Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, now playing at Playwrights Horizons, is going to be the closest thing to having an actual, honest conversation with one of “them.” And by “them” I mean the ultra-conservative, pro-life, Christian, Trump voters and supporters. Arbery was raised by conservative Catholic academic parents in Texas and Wyoming, and he can talk the talk and walk the walk.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning is set on August 19, 2017 in a small town in western Wyoming. It is the evening of the inauguration of Gina Presson (Michele Pawk) as the new President of Transfiguration College of Wyoming (modeled after the real Wyoming Catholic College where his father is President). Justin (Jeb Kreager), a former student who lives in the area, has thrown a party for some of his classmates who have come back for the ceremony. At the end of the evening, the only ones left are the very drunk Kevin (John Zdrojeski) who lives in Oklahoma and works at a Catholic textbook company, and is undergoing a crisis of faith; Teresa (Zoë Winters), who lives in Brooklyn in the South Slope, writes for a radical conservative website, and does too much cocaine; and Emily, not a classmate, but Gina’s daughter who has grown up with them all and who has been debilitated with an unidentified physical ailment for the past 7 years which causes her unremitting pain.
As Justin, Kevin, Teresa and Emily sit in Justin’s backyard at the end of the evening waiting for Gina to pick up Emily who is unable to drive, it becomes clear that life after graduation has led Kevin and Emily to slightly mellower views than Teresa and Justin. Teresa, on the front lines in NYC, is gearing herself up for the battle she sees coming that will determine whether their faith and views will survive. Justin, a little older, having done a tour in the Marines before college, believes that disengagement and living a life of their values through the coming hard times, will be the only way to endure.
What’s exciting about Heroes of the Fourth Turning is that aside from Arbery’s ingrained understanding of the values and beliefs of the people he’s portraying, he has created multi-dimensional human beings with complex feelings and relationships as vehicles to express them. Although the play is too long and needs some trimming, a glimpse into the conservative Christian mind is not the only reason to see Heroes of the Fourth Turning. The cast is, without exception, superb. Zoë Winters gives a crackling performance as the ultra-conservative, hyped-up, militant pro-life warrior. John Zdrojeski is the absolute personification of that guy; the confused, inappropriate, wasted drunk who can’t get over himself and doesn’t know when to quit. And Julia McDermott as the meek, tortured outsider who struggles to see the good in everyone and all sides while keeping her pain to herself, gives a tour de force performance. Danya Taymor’s intelligent and restrained direction allows what could devolve into rhetoric, become personal and heartfelt.
In his Notes in the Playbill for Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Arbery reveals that he started writing this play after the 2016 elections, while Democratic and Liberal Americans were reeling from the results and reading books like “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance to try to figure out what had gone wrong. Arbery presents us with a very shrewd, well educated, upper middle class Christian conservative movement that is in direct contrast to Vance’s reactionary Appalachian hillbillies who are the victims of economic disenfranchisement. It’s a refreshing view, and one I think portrays their values and ideas accurately and fairly and with dignity.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
"The astonishing new play explores the lives and ideas of conservatives with affection, understanding and deep knowledge — if not, ultimately, approval."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"There are many wonderful, crazy things in Will Arbery’s new play, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons. Any adventurous, slightly perverse theatergoer won’t want to miss them."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap