Regional Reviews: Boston
Heroes of the Fourth Turning
The political winds have shifted since Will Arbery's Heroes of the Fourth Turning premiered off-Broadway in 2019, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Roe v. Wade (a major subject of debate during the play) was not yet overturned, and President Donald Trump was a year out from conspiring to overturn his re-election loss. Arbery's sharp, unnerving drama unfolds on August 19, 2017, one week after the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. And soon, a solar eclipse will plunge this small Wyoming town into darkness; it's on the path of totality. Maybe that's why Arbery's cadre of young conservatives feel like the end is near.
Marianna Bassham's production at SpeakEasy allows Heroes of the Fourth Turning to sneak up on you; it's a lively and messy exchange of ideas among characters who each, in their own way, are hiding some sort of pain. Everyone we see is primarily shaped by their political conservatism and their whiteness. Their political beliefs have been fashioned by their time at–or association with–Transfiguration, a school that shapes intellectual pursuits through a faith-first curriculum. It's a play that takes seriously the thinkers and change-makers emerging on the religious right, whose late-night philosophizing may end up shaping the future of the national conservative movement.
On this fateful August night, three Transfiguration alumni attend a party honoring the new college president seven years after their graduation. Justin (Jesse Hinson), who lives in town and works at the college, has returned to Lander to be with like-minded people of faith, shielding himself from the sin of the secular world. Kevin (Nathan Malin), increasingly inebriated as the night wears on, is painfully single and addicted to internet porn, but also wrestling with his desire to look outside the strict limitations of his faith. Teresa (Dayna Cousins), at least, seems to be flourishing as the self-proclaimed "poster boy" for conservatism living in the heart of liberal America, aka Brooklyn. (But never mind her cocaine habit.)
The other party guests have gone home, leaving these three outside in Justin's backyard with Emily (Elise Piliponis), an old friend and the new college president's daughter. We learn that Emily deals with constant pain due to an unspecified degenerative disease, but she puts on a brave face for the party, leaving the house for the first time in weeks.
As conversation veers deeper into touchy political topics, the proceedings turn into a backwoods Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as these four characters begin to bait each other over their stances on their friends, their lifestyles, and their role in the future of this country. But beneath the pointed, often alarming, rhetoric they espouse, each character is motivated by something that brings them together on this night. For Teresa, it's a chance for her mentor's approval. For Kevin, a desperate need to reconnect–and maybe find a girlfriend.
I admire Bassham's ability to stage this play on a knife's edge, where we can't always tell if we should feel empathy or derision for this group of young conservatives. This production, after all, plays to what I expect is a fairly liberal audience. How would it play in deeply conservative America, I wonder? Arbery's characters are not cartoons, but their views can be extreme to a comical and/or frightening degree. Teresa's deification of Steve Bannon and her fetishistic insistence on an upcoming war are so outlandish they're laughable, especially given Bannon's recent indictments. If any character is close to tumbling down the QAnon rabbit hole, it's her. And, of course, everyone has a different view on former president Trump–even if they all voted for him.
You sense that Arbery knows these people, even if he doesn't agree with them. His writing is most powerful in its intentional discomfort. Not much happens beyond talk; but the conversation is heady and often impossible to turn away from. Over the course of two hours, without any break to disengage, it's easy to feel the claustrophobia of the world these lost souls inhabit, where (as one character realizes) everything they were taught was designed to reach the same conclusion.
The most rousing interaction comes in a battle of minds between Teresa and Dr. Gina Presson, the night's honoree and the students' former professor. Both Cousins and Karen MacDonald as Dr. Presson keep us on our toes, diving headfirst into a sparring match that pits Teresa's MAGA-fueled ethnocentrism against the professor's more genteel brand of conservatism. As much as we'd like to lump them together, their views are diametrically opposed, their empathy toward greater humanity falling on opposite ends of a wide spectrum of conservative beliefs. Among the rest of the cast, Malin entertains as the "holy fool" Kevin, whose contorted limbs provide comic relief masking the self-loathing eating him up inside. Piliponis, playing Emily, is the only cast member who seems disconnected from her character. She doesn't find a way to fully realize Emily's contradictory nature, with her sunny exterior covering for a constant pain that makes her wish, in her darkest moments, for death.
These Transfiguration acolytes may not resolve anything on this night. They're shouting into the night, with no one around to hear them, completely removed from the America they're trying to understand. Beyond the discord in our nation, they've started to see the divisions among themselves. How can they find their place in the world if they can't even band together? Arbery's ending is haunting and uncertain; it's hard to know if there will be healing through all the damage. And will it come too late–for them, and for our country?
SpeakEasy Stage Company's Heroes of the Fourth Turning runs through October 8, 2022, at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston MA. For tickets and information, please visit speakeasystage.com, call 617-933-8600, or visit the Boston Center for the Arts box office.