Heroes of the Fourth Turning
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Theater review by Helen Shaw
The stage is so dark at the beginning of Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, it’s hard to see anything at all. There appears to be a sweep of predawn charcoal sky and a backyard firepit, but we can’t be sure. We’ve certainly missed the man sitting silently with his back to us—until he reaches for his rifle. It only takes the barest lick of light to make the barrel glint. The man fires, then walks into the brush. He heaves the body of a deer onto the cement slab beneath his back door; he prepares to gut it. For the rest of this intermissionless show—more than two hours of torrential speech among friends and ex-friends—we know there’s blood on the threshold. It’s a powerful invocation: an old image of sacrifice and stain, and a reminder that soil remembers.
And that’s just what the play manages to say before the dialogue starts. It’s hard to talk about Arbery’s play, in a way, because there’s so much talking in it. (He describes it as a fugue.) It’s a structure of interweaving voices that never devolves into noise, and the voices aren’t ones we hear often Off Broadway. They are deeply religious, profoundly Catholic, proudly conservative, sometimes messianic.
We’re in deepest Wyoming, where Gina (Michele Pawk) has just been named president of Transfiguration College, a Catholic university that teaches its students theology, submission, rhetoric and survival skills. Four old friends have reunited in the same backyard we saw in the prologue, and host Justin (Jeb Kreager) is hoping that the party will wind down. But: “We need to have a Big Conversation!” yells Kevin (John Zdrojeski) to the glamorous, ruthless, Ann Coulter–esque Teresa (Zoë Winters). “I just love being around your brain.” Her brain can be cutting, though. She wounds Kevin—she has no time for his spiritual doubts—and slashes at the weakened Emily (Julia McDermott), whose chronic pain has made her both gracious and unpredictable. All four of them crackle with energy, faith and a desperate need to be understood as they argue about epic structures (the title refers to a way of seeing historical cycles) and against liberal evils. Each of them sees a war coming, but their prophecies don’t quite match.
Danya Taymor presides over a perfect production that left me with my heart in my mouth and my pen scrambling across the page. (This is the kind of play you know you'll need to read again someday.) It left others furious; some people even departed midshow, unwilling to hear such gorgeous prose saying so many frightening and even hateful things. But Arbery’s plays are important explorations of language. In his pseudocomedy Plano, linguistic slipperiness was existential: When characters said something, it came abruptly true; someone might say “We’ll talk about this later” and “It’s later and we’ve talked about it” in a single run-on sentence, and everyone would look a little surprised at the way that language was towing them pell-mell through life. In Heroes, Arbery’s message is clearer, truer and darker. His own family comes from this world, and he has clearly steeped long in its heady, often keenly intellectual poetry, some of which summons Armageddon. Arbery’s not playing avant-garde games anymore. He’s showing us how language, even at its most beautiful, can destabilize a mind, a backyard, the world.
Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). By Will Arbery. Directed by Danya Taymor. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 5mins. No intermission.