What do you do when 7 few years after you’ve graduated from college, you are adrift, emotionally miserable and/or in physical pain? What if cocaine, alcohol, social media obsessions, abstinence from sex, indulgence in sex, and your Catholicism isn’t helping you find your way? Do you find something else to believe in to help you escape from the labyrinth of conundrums and foreboding demon thoughts plaguing your life?
Will Arbery in Heroes of the Fourth Turning ably directed by Danya Taymor discloses the inner world of the right wing religious. In his entertaining and profound examination of conservative-minded friends-alumni from a small, Catholic college who gather for a party, we get to see an interesting portrait of conservative “types,” who are akin to liberals in dishing the rhetoric. To his credit Arbery gives grist to the argument that beyond the cant are the issues that pertain to every American. Whether liberal or conservative, all have the need to belong, to care and love, and to make a way where there is no apparent way to traverse the noise and cacophony, creating the social, political divide currently in our nation.
How each of the friends attempts to survive “out there” in the cruel, “evil” world fascinates. During the evening mini reunion on the occasion of celebrating Emily’s mom’s accepting the presidency of their alma mater, Emily (Julia McDermott) Kevin (John Zdrojeski) Justin (Jeb Kreager) and Teresa (Zoë Winters) explain who they’ve become or not become in the seven years since they’ve graduated. Teresa, a rebel during her college years, has become more right-wing conservative than ever, embracing Steve Bannon, Breitbart and Trump with gusto. The others have “laid low” in retreat in Wyoming and Oklahoma holding jobs they either despise or “put up with” until they get something better.
Zoë Winters portrays Teresa, the feisty, determined, “assured,” conspiracy-theorist supporter with annoying certainty and hyper- vitality as she explains the next phase of American history to the others. She does this by summarizing a book which posits the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory. Emily, Teresa and Kevin fit into the millennial segment which lends its title to the play: the fourth turning/hero cycle. As she insists that her friends are the hero archetypes laid out in Generations: The History of America’s Future: 1584-2069, she suggests they must embrace their inner/outer hero and get ready for the coming Civil War.
For different reasons Emily and Kevin find Teresa’s explanation of the “Fourth Turning” conceptualization doubtful for their lives. Kevin’s self-loathing and miserable weaknesses belie heroism. He is too full of self-torture and denigration to get out of himself to help another or take a stand for a conservative polemic to fight the liberal enemy in a Civil War. Emily is crippled by the pain of her disease. We discover later in the play that she has questions about the conservatism she once embraced. The Civil War polemic only seems possible for Justin (Jeb Kreager) who was in the military. Though Justin is not the “Hero” archetype, but is a “Nomad,” he later in the evening expresses that he thinks the conspiracy mantra “there will be a Civil War” leveled by alternative right websites will happen.
Arbery has targeted their conversations with credibility and accuracy and the actors are authentic in their nuanced portrayals. As Kevin, John Zdrojeski becomes more drunk, humorous and emotionally outrageous as the night progresses. His behavior shocks for a supposed Catholic until we understand Kevin doubts his religion’s tenets, especially abstinence before marriage. To a great extent he has been crippled emotionally by this doubt, double-mindedness and abject boredom he experiences with his job in Oklahoma and addiction to Social Media. Zdrojeski projects Kevin’s confusion and self-loathing victimization with pathos and humor. But we can’t quite feel sorry for him because he is responsible for his morass and appears to enjoy reveling in it to his friends, which is a typical M.O. as Teresa suggests.
As the friends wait for the arrival of Gina (Michele Pawk) Emily’s mom’s to congratulate her becoming president of their old alma mater, Catholic Transfiguration College of Wyoming, they drink and get drunk. While they catch up with each other, they reaffirm their friendships from the past and discuss and reflect what brought them to Catholic Transfiguration College to begin with. We note their conservative, religious views about life, family, politics and identify their confusion, sense of impending doom and lack of hope for the future. This is an irony for Catholics whose hope should reside with the birth of Christ and the resurrection. Clearly, they are not exercising the spiritual component of their faith, alluded to in Gina’s speech and in Kevin’s quoting of Wordsworth’s poem “The World is Too Much With Us.” They’ve allowed the material and carnal to overtake the spiritual dimension and thus are depressed and filled with doubt.
In representing the conservatives views of these individuals, the playwright culls talking points from right-wing media and blogs which Teresa references to Gina when Gina finally arrives. The fact that right-wing conservatism construes violent fighters as heroes is a conflated, limited view. Indeed, to see oneself as a hero and embrace that role is not even an act which true heroes (i.e. firemen, doctors in war zones) saving lives perceive for themselves. It is rhetoric. And Teresa, to empower herself to her old friends, speaks it as polemic. Her discussion is not really appropriate to inspire comfortable light conversation at a party. Indeed, her talk is done to solidify herself in the firmament of fantastical belief and remove any oblivion of her own doubts about her life. She and Justin who was in the military particularly range against liberals, the LBGTQ community, Black Lives Matter, etc.
Interestingly, Gina blows up Teresa’s cant when she finally arrives to receive the friends’ congratulations. However, they are not quite ready for Gina’s rhetorical response which is a convolution of conservative and liberal ideas that loop in on themselves again and again and defy political labeling. But Gina separates out the illogic of each of their positions. She disavows Justin’s need for guns on campus and decries the conspiracy of the upcoming “Civil War.” She implies that Bannon and his like-minded are hacks, and disavows Trump to the shock of Teresa. She pronounces toward the end of the evening that she is disappointed in the education they have received at their school, indeed, believing the college has failed them.
The night of celebration becomes a night of upheaval for Emily, Justin and Kevin and even the staunchly “certain” Teresa who will in the next decade most probably change her views a number of times to suit her determination that she has a handle on the great narrative of “reality.” But in truth as we watch these friends founder through the morass of sublimely complex political, social and cultural convergences they discuss and refer to, it becomes obvious that they have been dislocated from their comfortable conservatism that categorically defined the world for them when they began college.
The irony is that when Gina comes and joins their conversation and smacks down each of their beliefs, especially Teresa’s, we settle back watching the imbroglio that Arbery has wrought. Indeed, we wonder at Gina’s convoluted logic and justifications. That she would give Kevin a job in admissions is a sardonic irony of misjudgment. He appears the least directed to help others in the admissions process. Though they say their goodbyes with love, Justin and Emily remain in darkness. There is no comfort to be found only a continuation of a foreboding reckoning.
The strongest dynamic of the play resides in the conflicts when Arbery has the friends go at each other after their initial easy reaffirmation of friendships. Ironically, the community they attempt to create falls apart driven by what is devouring each of them inside. It is then that personal flaws they’ve discussed manifest and the hell they face within spills out. Justin’s is humorously eerie. Emily’s comes in the form of fury at whom she deals with in her job and the resident demon of pain in her body. Teresa fears she is making a mistake getting married and Kevin can’t come to the end of himself.
The tempest between the individuals and their inner conflicts reflects a currency for our times and is welcome fodder for entertainment. Arbery with the direction of Taymor has succeeded in extending a hand across the divide of national uproar between left and right with his human, flawed characters. The actors in this ensemble are superb and hit powerful emotional notes with spot-on nuances between humor and profound drama.
This is a play you must see for its shining performances, its topics, the rhetoric exceptionally fashioned by the playwright and its surprises in characterization. The conclusion is chilling. Noted are the design team: Sarafina Bush (costumes) Isabella Byrd (lighting) Justin Ellington (sound) J. David Brimmer (fight director).
Heroes of the Fourth Turning runs with no intermission at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street between 8th and 9th). For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.