As birds chirp from every direction, a backwoods cabin sits against a backdrop of giant pines, lined up like sentry soldiers guarding under a Wyoming sky whose stars begin to peak through their needles. Intermittent chords resembling a distant foghorn are heard as we settle into our seats; but there is something ominous in their low, haunting sounds. As the play progresses, the idyllic setting created by Bill English takes on more troubling signs. Subdued lighting, menacing shadows, and dark corners take their turn in creating the mood (Heather Kenyon, lighting design). Mysterious screeches suddenly pierce the night (Teddy Hulsker, sound design), scaring both those on stage and those of us in the audience (not to mention the low rumblings that at times shake ever so slightly our seats and our nerves). And then here is that ever-enlarging full moon that cannot help but remind anyone who has recently seen Don’t Look Up of approaching, inescapable doom.
After all, we hear over and again that “There’s a war coming” in Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning – a multi-award winning, 2020 Pulitzer finalist now playing at San Francisco Playhouse. Four recent graduates of Transfiguration College of Wyoming – a Catholic school so conservative that students turn in their cell phones during their four years – have returned to witness their favorite professor’s ascension to be the institute’s first woman president. Two days before a full eclipse of the moon and two days after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville has shocked much of the world with its white supremist proclamations, these four white friends who all voted for Trump share their views, predictions, and fears about their shared religion and politics, the state of the country, and themselves. As audience members living in an area known as one of the most liberal and progressive in the nation, we have the rare, often uneasy, and even sometimes unpleasant opportunity to witness what it is like in our currently politically divided nation to walk in the shoes of those we often see as “them”.
But it does not take long for many of our own liberal-minded stereotypes of those to the right of us to begin to crumble around the edges. Sure, 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 hero is Steve Bannon. The intensity that Ash Malloy brings to her Teresa is palpable and yes, totally charismatic. She is almost 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 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 gathered friends – all who 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.” Johnny Moreno’s country-sounding drawl and his overall quiet, easy-going nature cannot hide the stark dichotomy of the pistol he carries in his back pocket and his diatribe against LGBT people in comparison to his still-secret, future plans to withdraw further into a completely cloistered world only his Catholicism can provide.
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 over-blown ego and self-confidence. “I’m the worse,” he constantly moans and cries in many different ways (often with alcohol-enabled, remorseful tears). He has questions that range from why is the Virgin Mary so special to why Catholics must always be conservative politically – questions that show he has both doubts and curiosity while he also struggling to be as hard core as he thinks Teresa wants him to be. Josh Schell in many ways again and again provides the evening’s most compelling performance – sometimes on the verge of being a complete madman; sometimes in the form of a bumbling, hyper, young boy; sometimes crumpled as a defeated, pitiful soul.
The character who has 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). Wera von Wulfen’s Emily perpetually brings a sunny smile and pleasant nature as she tries to hide her bodily pain. But weak she is not as 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 with those she fundamentally disagrees. When that empathy for a woman who has had an abortion overtakes her pain-wracked body in a fevered dream, Wera von Wulfen transforms the mild, soft-spoken Emily into a vision that is nothing short of stunning and horrifying.
Into this mix of friends who waver between moments of playful re-bonding and periods of pointed, hurtful clashing comes Gina (Susi Damilano), the now-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 tongue sharp and an arrow meant to pierce – especially when she takes on the beliefs of Trump/Bannon-loving Teresa. Gina is a self-reported “Goldwater Girl” who wanted at one time that Pat Buchanan 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.
Thus, we in the audience 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 his 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 monologues, 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 recapitulation of her presidential, acceptance speech by Gina, to name a few. At times, these departures from the back-and-forth banter and bicker zap some of the production’s otherwise high energy. Some even leave the audience member scratching one’s head wondering, “Now what was that all about?” But fortunately, the pace picks back up quickly, and we are on to another round of the friends’ mixture of chummy chatter, pointed cuts and bites, and pronouncements of their wide range of conservative views and outlooks.
One of the particular strengths of the evening is the use of silent looks that Director Bill English employs. When she is not on her pedestal of espousing, blog-worthy soundbites, we get to see in Teresa’s face hints of unspoken self-doubt and regret. Kevin’s dark looks and quick, almost fearful glances to the dark woods tell of some foreboding he is not sharing while other quick shifts of his attention suggest a past, secret connection with Teresa that still haunts him. Emily lives in her own silent world at times with beaming smiles to offer unconditional support to others while showing eyes that announce the pain she is constantly fighting to hide. Justin is the only one whose emotional swings are rarely silent or subtle shared; his very visible and verbal twists and turns are a masterful combination of an actor’s and a director’s efforts.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning is not an easy, carefree evening at the theatre. There are moments when it is totally intriguing, moments when perplexing, and moments frustrating and unnerving. But this production at San Francisco Playhouse is a good lesson for all of us in the Bay Area who think we know what the ‘other side’ is really like and who clump them all into a description of the Republican Right that fits what we read daily on HuffPost or in the posts/shares of our like-minded friends on FaceBook. Perhaps we do need our own dose of Emily’s empathy to understand why “they” are probably as genuinely concerned and even frightened of where our country is heading as we are.
Rating: 4 E
Heroes of the Fourth Turning continues through March 5, 2002 in production by San Franciso Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office 415-677-9569, Tuesday – Saturday, 1 p.m. – 6 p.m. Note: All audience members must bring identification and proof of full vaccinations (including booster) and must wear at all times a KN95 or N95 mask.
Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli