Art—visual, performance or otherwise—can engage or repel, excite or anger, inspire or extinguish. Sometimes, it can do all these things, and more, all at once. Playwright Will Arbery achieves this in "Heroes of the Fourth Turning," which uses a conversation among four friends as a lens to view conservative Catholicism and whiteness. The play at SpeakEasy Stage shows now through Oct. 8.
The action takes place in a backyard on Aug. 19, 2017, in Lander, Wyoming, a week after white supremacist groups gathered to Unite the Right and rally in protest of the removal of the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. However, counter-protestors showed up and the event turned violent. Dozens of people were injured and one woman, Heather Heyer, was struck and killed by a car driven by white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. While the group doesn't spend much time discussing the incident, it's clear that the passion they all speak with is in response to the cultural climate of the moment. Donald Trump, the then president, was consistently accused of stoking racial discord and hate crimes were ratcheting up. Division felt even more palpable, and the media put out story after story to explain why some Americans voted for Trump. The characters in "Heroes of the Fourth Turning" get more than a brief profile and picture offering their stances on a couple of critical issues. Audiences learn about their upbringing, how their religious views aren't separate from their politics and how these experiences shape and inform their lives.
There's Justin (Jesse Hinson), who is former military and older than the other members of the group and has deeply held conservative views. Kevin, a tortured alcoholic (who has consumed lots of secret whiskeys), seems genuinely curious about the world and eager to engage in all facets of it. Teresa (Dayna Cousins), intelligent but cold, believes in Steve Bannon’s political ideas, and Emily, the mysteriously ill and in-pain daughter of Dr. Gina — the newly named president of Transfiguration College, is conservative but less rigid in some ways than her friends. The group — three of whom attended Transfiguration — were present at Gina's ceremony, and that's what brings them to the backyard reunion.
Nathan Malin serves up a believable and well-acted Kevin. The talented actor who appeared in SpeakEasy's production of "The Sound Inside" last year tries to appeal to the hearts of his former classmates regarding societal issues. Despite not feeling much about it, he believes in Catholicism and is still a conservative. But, he's happy to try to learn more about those who aren’t like him. Kevin's approach is far different from Cousins' Teresa.
Teresa lives in Brooklyn in a neighborhood that smells of freshly baked bread and houses a historic cemetery. She feels her views are to be fiercely protected and to do anything less is weak. Teresa's edgier than the rest and boldly shares her thoughts. She's also comical. When talking about her fiancé, she says, "He's Connecticut like me. I always needed a Connecticut."
But theatergoers learn that despite her staunch advocacy of Christian values, her reputation is less than lily-white. At least in this environment. When Dr. Gina shows up, the fight between her old right views and Teresa's new conservative ideas turns startlingly acerbic.
Many audience members sighed, groaned and chuckled as the friends, sitting on benches or orange and green folding chairs, outline their arguments about a pending culture war that would destroy Western civilization while others talked of their willingness to engage others who held different views. Even though these friends' opinions are on the far right, fault lines still exist between them.
After tossing around the "Benedict Option" and sharing how he's not ready for the world, Kevin exclaims that he should move to New York like Teresa. Hinson's Justin warns of the temptations of urban cities and points out they're hubs of LGBTQ+ activity and that Kevin should stay away. Malin's Kevin doesn't think that differences of opinion should deter engagement, but Justin says it's hard talking to people who won't change.
"What's wrong with it being hard? It should be hard," Kevin says. But Justin prefers to "Stay among the like-minded."
Arbery grew up in this world and his sharp writing shows it. Despite what side of the political fence one is on, the sparring between the group—over the disruptive noise of what's thought to be a broken generator—is lyrical and poetic, if not off-putting. Personal philosophies collide and get interspersed with muddled truths. Emily (Elise Piliponis), firmly on the right, ardently tries to shed some light on the other side. She has a friend who works at Planned Parenthood that she deems a good person. But Cousins' Teresa sees things in black and white and can't believe anyone who works at an organization that allows people to "commit murder" can be a good person, she says.
The play's title points to an actual book, "The Fourth Turning" by William Strauss and Neil Howe, where the authors reviewed over 500 years of history and noticed that it moves in patterns or turnings. These turnings allegedly help the authors predict the future. They also outline archetypes that Teresa shares with the group when discussing the coming culture war.
It's important to note that director Marianna Bassham, an Elliot Norton Award winner, succeeds in allowing the characters to be fully human—kind, terrifying, polarizing, funny—instead of caricatures. The conversations these people have, the books they read and the leaders they follow are, at least in this blue commonwealth, most likely only popular with a minority. But hearing their views and how religion binds their experiences and opinions together is eye-opening. There's no real resolve or change of thought here, which is the most realistic outcome. But the play does, at least for this audience member, shine a brighter light on the tribalism that exists in America. If not by race, then economics, thought, religion and politics, or any combination of it.
But Justin's admonishment of Kevin to stay among the like-minded is one of the more agonizing directives of all. Doing so allows everyone to keep pointing fingers and placing blame, keeping us all on our respective sides without any hope of ever trying to meet in the middle, just because it's hard.
SpeakEasy Stage's "Heroes of the Fourth Turning" shows now through Oct. 8 at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion.