Theatre that examines conservative, religious rhetoric is often skewed towards a progressive, liberal-minded agenda; audiences are well-conditioned to sensible lefties debating right-wing nutcases onstage, but playwright Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, presented by Crow’s Theatre and The Howland Company, comes from an oft-neglected dramatic vantage point. He immerses us in the genuine fears and ambitions of some conservative Catholic college alumnae who, a year into Trump’s presidency, have gathered to celebrate a beloved professor’s promotion.
Justin (Mac Fyfe), the eldest of the alumni, is the first we meet. We quickly discover he’s a patient, meditative, gentle man—though he has limits and we eventually glimpse his intimidating potential for violence. In a striking early scene that occurs before the main action, he shoots and hangs a deer, but can’t bring himself to gut it. His hand shakes violently at each attempt, though we can’t tell if his affliction is physical or psychological. Regardless, we recognize something in him is broken and the tone is set for an evening of fraught interactions.
Kevin (Cameron Laurie) is the drunkest of the lot. He’s earnest and eager, but his desperate flailing towards an idea of manhood makes him whiny and ingratiating. Teresa (Ruth Goodwin) is the most confrontational, aligning herself with fanatical conservative media and shielding herself with adversarial posturing. Emily (Hallie Seline) suffers from an unnamed, painful chronic condition. Her struggle to put on a brave face is endearing and intensifies our affection for her as an empath and peacemaker.
By the time Gina (Maria Ricossa)—the woman of the hour—shows up, it’s quite late, alcohol has taken hold, and tensions are high. She’s a portrait of elegance and sophistication before she even speaks, but her measured cadence fully establishes her poise and intelligence. She’s an iconic matriarch, but she too has her buttons; once pushed, her contempt shoots out in a jarring single barb that truly stuns.
As they simmer, seethe and stomp about Wes Babcock’s convincing backyard set, they whip out all the familiar right-wing talking points. Depending on your sensibilities, your milage with any of these ideas may vary, but I doubt you’ll be able to dismiss any of them outright. These are thoughtful, articulate, passionate people wrestling with a world in turmoil and their own sense of personal responsibility. Despite harbouring radically divergent ideologies, even within their collective conservatism, love for their country and each other is deep and palpable.
I was cooly dubious for the first thirty minutes of this two hour play, but once it took hold, its grip is firm. Arbery’s script mines the relentless political and religious discourse for the urgent human needs that fuel it. Director Philip Akin maintains this nuanced ensemble’s persuasive verisimilitude. Everyone here is authentic and complicated.
The finale takes a rather abrupt turn towards the fanciful. Emily’s distressing monologue and Kevin’s eerie revelation about his scary, screeching generator are open to interpretation. Are cosmic forces at work? Are imaginations running wild? Is the play itself indulging in thematic abstractions? Any and all of these are possible, intriguing and resonant.