Entering a performance of a play that runs over two hours with no intermission, one takes a seat with the hope — nay, with the expectation — “Well, this better be riveting.” Sivan Battat’s well-acted production of Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning (★★★☆☆) at Studio Theatre, might be a few degrees shy of riveting, but it’s very good.
Part juicy reunion drama, part theatrical symposium on Catholic conservatism during the Trump years, the play brings together former Catholic university classmates Justin (Gregory Connors), Kevin (Louis Reyes McWilliams), and Teresa (Laura C. Harris) for a fraught night of healthy and unhealthy debate.
Seven years after graduating from the Transfiguration College of Wyoming, they’ve gathered at Justin’s modest home on the outskirts of the school’s small Wyoming town, taking stock of their lives. They’re joined by Emily (Sophia Lillis, of It film fame), the daughter of two of the college’s faculty.
Terminally ill Emily walks with the help of crutches, and inhabits, as she calls it, a “prairie of pain.” Yet through, or despite, her suffering, she remains among them the voice of hope and innocence.
Lillis finds the right measure of lightness and soberness in Emily, so that the character isn’t twee but endearingly wholesome. Her bright-eyed openness contrasts effectively with the varying shades of doubt, cynicism, and close-mindedness embodied by hyperactive pleasure seeker Kevin, taciturn moralist Justin, and media-savvy right-winger Teresa.
Playwright Arbery grew up in a household of Catholic academics, and with relish arranges this flock of faithful in charged pairs, trios, and quartets of tense, at times cut-to-the-quick conflict. Kevin keeps trying to steer the loose hangout towards Big Conversation, and gets his wish as the group argues and philosophizes over everything from religion and politics, to sex, drugs, war, and abortion.
Arbery also carefully deals out details of their collective backstory, using the reunion setup well to invest their relationships with the weight of their past actions, as well as what they say and do on this night in Justin’s backyard.
Visiting from his stable but unfulfilling post-grad life in Oklahoma, Kevin is the most visibly ill-at-ease in the renewed company of old friends. McWilliams transmits Kevin’s building crises of faith and purpose as something serious in spite of the guy’s goofy façade and jokey demeanor. His admission that his faith doesn’t truly stir any feeling in him lands with subtle, powerful sincerity.
Teresa, on the other hand, feels more contrived as a character. A steely (some call her cold) professional far-right conservative who reveres Steve Bannon, wants America to embrace a Christian nationalist identity, yet proudly calls Brooklyn home, she represents an extreme version of an extremist.
Still, Harris handles her several heated speeches with aplomb, and in general turns a stridently alt-right mouthpiece into a credible member of this coterie.
She’s probably at her most credible when Teresa’s having her ass handed to her by former professor and mentor Dr. Gina Preston (Naomi Jacobson), also Emily’s mom. Dr. Gina’s brief appearance at the get-together is indeed riveting, thanks in large part to Jacobson, who delivers Gina’s withering dismissal of Teresa as if Gina has been waiting for years to unload these choice pieces of her mind.
But, when they’re not conflicting with each other, the group mostly unloads on “The Left,” that nebulous enemy, who has no avowed voice in this circle. Too much of their discourse amounts to flowery, erudite rhetoric reducing the opposition to FOX News-sized clichés, either a pack of self-righteous virtue signalers or bald-faced evildoers.
Gathered around Yu Shibagaki’s quietly atmospheric set, they ponder questions like “Can liberals be good?” But none of them, be they based in Brooklyn, Oklahoma, or alone on a range in the middle of nowhere Wyoming, demonstrate much knowledge of or interest in the liberal human beings who comprise the Left.
Justin specifically encourages steering clear of LGBTQ people and others he deems sinners. Kevin instead insists they should engage and save the sinners, although he doesn’t acknowledge that people might not want to engage with someone who thinks they need saving.
So their arguments tend to be one-sided, and Arbery knows this — he’s purposefully created an echo chamber of ideas and convictions, more or less closed to opposing views. The view from inside that bubble is only mildly instructive, though.
He’s also created a reunion drama laced with secrets and revelations that Battat doesn’t quite stir into a tempest of emotions. Rather, the bombshells amount to puffs of smoke, offering minor insight into the ideological stances of these pious pontificators all battling to earn their time on the floor of debate.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning runs through Oct. 23 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets are $45 to $90. Call 202-332-3300, or visit www.StudioTheatre.org.
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