Photos: Nile Scott Studios Nathan Malin and Jesse Hinson in “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.”

It’s what ‘Heroes’ left out that’s most disturbing

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It’s what ‘Heroes’ left out that’s most disturbing

Photos: Nile Scott Studios Nathan Malin and Jesse Hinson in “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.”

What does it say that a play set a week after the 2017 riot in Charlottesville, Va., speaks of the torches of white supremacists without mentioning antisemitism by name?

“Heroes of the Fourth Turning” may mean to present Christian far right conservatives as self-examining human beings worthy of sympathy and understanding. However, by the end of its no-intermission discourse on personal and communal issues, conservatives may find themselves as dissatisfied as liberals with a drama that strangely needs more risk-taking about its characters’ shortcomings and less easy expounding of predictable points of view.

A striking area premiere by SpeakEasy Stage Company – staged sharply by gifted veteran actress Marianna Bassham at the Calderwood Pavilion – makes the play’s shortcomings all the more disturbing.

Playwright Will Arbery is the Dallas-raised son of two professors at Wyoming Catholic College. He sets the play in what must be familiar territory, a fictional bastion of conservative Christian education called Transfiguration College of Wyoming.

After seven years away, four friends who have taken different paths reunite, returning to Transfiguration College for the inauguration of the college’s new president. In the ensuing performance, what promises to be a debate about controversial issues often sounds more like a verbal slugfest than a real grappling with feelings and beliefs.

The characters’ conversations take place in the Lander, Wy., backyard of a veteran named Justin two days before an eagerly awaited eclipse. All together or in one-on-one stretches, their discourses cover some areas of agreement as well as very deep divisions. Justin – somewhat older than the other three – has adopted a hands-off posture toward the secular world, is unswervingly homophobic and trains students in marksmanship. Kevin – who clearly has a problem with alcohol but sounds genuine about soul-searching – says he vomited after voting for Trump, yells about a “demon in me” and insists that he needs a change, maybe a move to New York City. Teresa, coldly self-assured for much of the play, speaks of Abraham and Mary, and a ladder of revelation, yet calls Trump “more human,” likes Steve Bannon and considers Planned Parenthood murderers. Emily – the daughter of the new college president – empathizes with Kevin, finds Teresa very reductive in her thinking, and actually has a friend who works for Planned Parenthood. She sincerely wants people to love each other.

Elise Piliponis as Emily in “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.”

To varying degrees, all four see a culture war in the country’s future. In that light, they appear to be the self-styled heroes of the title speaking of a cyclic religious turning. Does Arbery mean to present them as Christians more concerned with ritual than caring? Emily may express more feeling for others, but her talk about poverty seems focused on decrying social welfare programs. When Gina, the new president of the college, enters and counters Teresa’s theological posture, she references the former’s earlier involvement with the John Birch Society. But no one ever mentions the group’s antisemitism. Likewise, when Pat Buchanan comes up in the conversation, there ought to be a note that he was a Nazi sympathizer.

Is Arbery deliberately depicting his characters’ insensitivity to racism and antisemitism? Could these apparent nature lovers and eclipse enthusiasts be ecologically challenged? Theatergoers will have to decide for themselves.

Unquestionable, though, is the stellar effort of the cast. Nathan Milan displays terrific body language as Kevin sprawls all over Justin’s backyard and table-bench during his angst and soul-searching. He combines his poignant caring for Emily with alternately amusing and sad outspokenness. Jesse Hinson captures Justin’s reserve and tenacity as well as his tenderness toward Emily. Elise Piliponis finds Emily’s emotional richness and serious vulnerability.

Dayna Cousins nails Teresa’s maddening certainty about her unwavering religious positions and her growing hurt as Gina slams them. Karen MacDonald, one of the Hub’s best actresses, makes the most of Gina’s observations and admonitions. High marks go to Baron E. Pugh’s spare, atmospheric set, Jeff Adelberg’s vivid lighting and Elizabeth Cahill’s strong sound design for what Justin claims is a faulty generator.

At one point Teresa accuses Kevin of being “morally lazy.” “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” although a 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist, needs to rise above easy targeting to take on the most alarming religious and human failings of its characters.

“Heroes of the Fourth Turning” runs through Oct. 8 at the Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street, Boston.

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