‘Fourth Turning’: A rare spotlight on conservatives

Kevin (Nathan Malin) questions Dr. Gina Presson (Karen MacDonald, second from left) in “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.” Photo: Nile Scott Sudios

By Rich Fahey

BOSTON – Now in its 32nd season, the SpeakEasy Stage Company has never shied away from works described as “provocative” or “controversial.”

Instead, you can expect noteworthy works described that way to show up at some point in the SpeakEasy canon as audiences are constantly being challenged.

The latest example is Will Arberry’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,”  getting its Boston premiere in the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through Oct. 8.

“Heroes” takes place in August 2017 in a small town of 7,000 in western Wyoming, a week after the deadly confrontation in Charlottesville, Va., and two days before a solar eclipse. A group of Catholic conservatives – three of them former students at Transfiguration College, a small Catholic school — have come together seven years after graduation to celebrate the news that their former teacher has been named president of the college.

Arberry knows these people well. He grew up in a conservative Catholic family, the only son with seven sisters, and his father, Glenn Arberry, is the president of Wyoming Catholic School, a school which closely identifies with that of the fictional Transfiguration.

The production arrives with fanfare. It was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and earned an Obie and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play. In the end you may or may not appreciate Arberry’s vision, but “Heroes” features remarkable direction by Marianna Bassham and a five-strong group master class in acting.

Justin (Jesse Hinson sings to Emily (Elise Pilponis, seated) and Teresa (Dayna Cousins) in “Heores of the Fourth Turning.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios

The host of the after-party is Justin (Jesse Hinson), a former Marine and the oldest of the former students, a hunter who owns both a rifle and a revolver and checks off several Red State boxes. He has stayed in town and works at Transfiguration.

Dayna Cousins is Teresa, outspoken but cool, based in Brooklyn who works in media, has an actress roommate and is a fangirl of Steve Bannon.

Emily (Elise Pilponis) left Wyoming to attend college elsewhere but has returned, only to be all but incapacitated by a mysterious illness. The daughter of the college president, she has empathy for others, even those she disagrees with.

Kevin (Nathan Malin) is a lost soul, quite determinedly drunk and getting more inebriated by the minute. He spends too much time watching porn on the Internet, is trapped in a dead-end job and would love a girlfriend like Teresa, but perhaps vomiting during the party is not the way to get one.

They do share a common trait: these are not unread, unwashed archetypes. They read, they think and they are articulate as they express their ideas and opinions, even when they skirt the outer edges of far-right thinking.

Theater-goers almost never encounter people such as these; conservatives tend to be knuckle-dragging stereotypes brought in to serve as punching bags for their liberal counterparts

Ostensibly on the same page when it comes to conservative Catholic thinking,  there are cracks and fissures as Emily, speaking through her pain, allows she has met people associated with Planned Parenthood who were actually decent, a view not shared by Teresa, who cautions her against associating with “murderers.”

Into the fray at a fraught moment comes Karen MacDonald as Dr. Gina Presson, the newly anointed president who arrives with a bit of a bulls-eye on her back, unaware of what was going on before her arrival.

A former president is discussed; all five admit holding their noses and voting for Trump, whom Gina calls a “necessary evil.”

Teresa, meanwhile, sees herself as a hero of the “Fourth Turning” – stemming from the book “The Fourth Turning” by William Strauss and Neil Howe, which theorizes that political change will occur on a gubernational timetable. Teresa is quite sure “there’s a war coming,” whether it be a near-term culture one or a liberal one, and Justin is quick to agree with her.

That sets up a scathing confrontation between Teresa’s Bannonite worldview and that of Gina, a self-proclaimed, pragmatic “Goldwater Girl.”

Director Bassham was the first to admit in program notes that as a liberal woman her past contact with people like this group was limited but it did not impede her desire to help her cast get to the heart of the characters and their beliefs.

In the two hours of “Heroes” — performed without an intermission — personal comfort will be elusive, including several eardrum-blasting noises that are described as “generator malfunctions” but may be something more sinister.

Arberry anticipated in an interview with the Boston Globe that some would feel cheated that there is no clear takeaway from “Heroes.” “I knew the subject matter would be controversial, provocative, and a conversation-starter,” he said. “And I knew people would be hungry for a clear takeaway and probably mad if there wasn’t one, but that’s not what I do.”

What he has done is dig deep to find the roots of his characters’ beliefs and behaviors and allowed them to speak their truths as they see them.

And, depending on where you land on the political spectrum, that may be the scariest thing of all.  

The SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.” Play by Will Arberry. Directed by Marianna Bassham. In the Roberts Studio Theatre of the Calderwood Pavilion in the Boston Center for the Arts through Oct. 8. SpeakEasyStage.com