Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Heroes of the Fourth Turning
San Francisco Playhouse
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's reviews of Swept Away and Freestyle Love Supreme

Susi Damilano, Josh Schell, Johnny Moreno,
Wera von Wulfen and Ash Malloy

Photo by Jessica Palopoli
Trigger warning: if the names "Steve Bannon" or "Donald Trump" in any way cause you anxiety, I'd strongly advise keeping your distance from the San Francisco Playhouse for the next several weeks. Because the characters in Heroes of the Fourth Turning are fans, if not of the men, then at least of their political philosophies. One character admits to having thrown up after voting for Trump, while another compares him to chemotherapy: nauseating, but perhaps a cure for something far worse.

The characters have come together for a party celebrating the enshrinement of a new president of their alma mater, a very conservative Catholic college in Wyoming that has focused on raising a new generation of anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, neoconservative activists. The revelers have come to a cabin on the edge of a wilderness–a fitting location given that they all believe the world is in the midst of a "fourth turning," the last phase of a cycle of transformations: a "high," when things are great; an "awakening" as institutions are questioned or mistrusted in a search for greater personal autonomy; an "unraveling" when cultures and institutions begin to fall apart; and, finally, a "crisis," that is often marked by war or revolution.

Justin (Johnny Moreno) seems ready for one. In the opening scene he casually grabs a rifle from inside the cabin, fires off a shot, exits and returns with a deer carcass over his shoulder, and carries a pistol tucked into his waistband throughout the long evening. But everyone's a little tense: the play's action happens a week after the Charlottesville riots, when neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched in protest of the planned removal of a confederate statue, and a young woman was killed during a counter-protest. Kevin (Josh Schell) might be the most ill at ease. He yearns for connection–especially with a girlfriend, the lack of which he bemoans–and salves his wounded self-image with alcohol. Emily (Wera von Wulfen) suffers from some unstated illness and has only hauled herself out of bed to attend this celebration. Teresa (Ash Malloy) is the most on edge, being an admitted cocaine user, and the most zealous member of the group. "Pat Buchanan was amazing," she states at one point, and you can feel the audience inwardly groaning at her hagiography.

The conversation–much of it simultaneously disturbing and thought-provoking–wanders far and wide over issues near and dear to conservatives: transgender rights (which compels Justin to make an odd biblical comparison: "The lepers need to be healed, and not be celebrating their leprosy!"), immigration, and abortion–Roe v. Wade is to them a scar on America at which they pick obsessively.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning put me in mind of a movie from 1990, Mindwalk, in which a group of intellectuals spar with each other, but never reach a resolution. Heroes of the Fourth Turning has points to make and will surely spark some uncomfortable conversations, but it spends too much time (the show runs two hours and twenty minutes without an intermission) on distractions and dead ends. The eclipse of 2017 is mentioned regularly, but nothing comes of it. Strange noises that cause the characters to cover their ears erupt from time to time, but neither Justin's explanation of them nor the eventual "truth" behind the noises makes much sense or seems to be tied in any way to the characters or the action.

Things take a turn for the better when Gina (Susi Damilano), the new president of Transfiguration College, finally appears on the scene. This is not only because Gina brings a fresh, more mature perspective on conservatism (she hates Trump–but voted for him–and even has, much to the chagrin of Teresa, a friend who works for Planned Parenthood), but because Damilano is so assured and steady in her role. It is she and Josh Schell, as Kevin, who best find ways to express their characters' hearts with the honesty that good acting requires. Schell is especially to be commended for his ability to maintain that loose, shields-down lack of inhibition (as well as a subtle weaving stride) that often comes with drunkenness–and keeps it up for 260 minutes. But the cast is woefully unbalanced, and there is little sense of true friendship between the characters they attempt to embody for us. They're all bluster and posturing and proving one's point. Johnny Moreno especially seems to be in his own orbit, circling a different sun than everyone else on stage.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning is not a bad play per se (it has received multiple awards and was a Pulitzer finalist), but its reach exceeds its grasp. And, worse that that, it doesn't know when to stop grasping.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning plays through March 5, 2022, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $25-$100. For tickets and information, please or call the box office at 415-677-9596.