This is the review of Heroes of the Fourth Turning that I included in the December 3, 2020 issue of my newsletter, FRESH SHEET. I’m posting it here so that I can link to it in my November 17, 2022 issue.
I haven’t encountered such a philosophically and intellectually dense new play since I first saw Angels in America in 1994.
In Heroes of the Fourth Turning, former students of the Transfiguration College of Wyoming gather for a reunion of sorts seven years after they’ve graduated. Transfiguration is a conservative Catholic institution — anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-government funding.
As they hang out by the firepit at Justin’s Wyoming house, which feels like it’s in the middle of the prairie nowhere, the young adult characters reinforce and defy conservative stereotypes. Kevin, the drunk, self-styled holy fool, asks, “Why the heck do we have to love the Virgin Mary?” He’s addicted to porn and wants to believe that having a girlfriend would save him. The intellectually formidable Teresa, who lives in New York and idolizes Steve Bannon, admits, “I probably do too much cocaine. It’s fucking great.” Emily suffers a painful illness that looks like Lyme disease — but may be the manifestation of suppressed rage: she dares to empathize with women who terminate their pregnancies. When we first meet Justin, he’s trying to gut a deer, but his hands shake so badly that he drops his knife.
They all voted for Trump. Kevin vomited after doing so.
They’re complicated. And they’re not stupid. So not stupid. They reference St. Augustine and Heidegger and they quote at length from Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journals.
They fear the chaos of liberalism. Hillary Clinton “would have scrubbed the world of particularity” Teresa informs us. “Of mystery.” Without Christian discipline, America would become “a throbbing mass of genderless narcissists … feeding us a brand new set of oppressed identities every year.”
If the script sounds talky — and heady — it is. From my perspective, it looks like the characters are fighting the long-standing Catholic battle against the body and, like generations of Catholics before them, they’re losing. Fucked up about sex and gender, they retreat into increasingly isolated ideological outposts.
But that’s my take. Playwright Will Arbery’s parents are both professors at Wyoming Catholic College, which looks a lot like Transfiguration and, when he goes home to visit, he recites the rosary with them.
The action in the play is repeatedly interrupted by deafening clanging. Justin says it’s his generator malfunctioning, but it becomes increasingly likely that something more mysterious is going on — maybe something about cultural noise. Near the end of the play, Kevin expresses his desperation to “let two competing facts exist in the same space.”
Arbery’s refusal of an easy resolution is one of the script’s strengths. But, the way I see it, its underlying subject is the desperation — and failure — to escape spiritual suffering.
I laid down $34 US to watch a digital stream of Heroes of the Fourth Turning from Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre. I’m glad I did. Thirty-four bucks isn’t too much to pay for this kind of stimulation. And the production is excellent.
I don’t expect a lot of readers to open their wallets. If you don’t, consider this a bulletin from a scout. Remember Arbery’s name. And, if you’re tempted to check out Heroes of the Fourth Turning — by purchasing tickets from the Wilma, by reading the script, or just by keeping your ear out for it — do so.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning will be available for digital streaming until December 13. If you watch it, let me know what you think.