Playwright Will Arbery has a lot on his mind as expressed in his play “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” presented by Playwrights Horizons. He deals with Catholicism, right-wing conservatism, attitudes toward abortion, illness, education, sexual desire, and even Trump in his cavalcade of conversation. Sometimes the talk hits home dramatically, but too often the conflicting ideas seem as if they would lend themselves better to expression in an essay rather than by characters in a play.
The production, which runs about two hours without an intermission, is set in a town of 7,000 in western Wyoming. The timing is very specific—August 19, 2017, two days before a solar eclipse and one week after the Charlottesville riot. It is the night of the inauguration of Gina (Michelle Pawk) as president of conservative Transfiguration College of Wyoming, an institution which the author has said is much like the college where his parents teach. In a program note Arbery details how he was raised by Catholic conservative academics. That is the kind of base from which the play’s action evolves, with the characters gathered at the home of Justin (Jeb Kreager)--whom we first meet when he shoots a deer from his backyard--to celebrate Gina’s new position, as they were her students at the college. The stage is consistently dimly lit (scenic design by Laura Jelinek, lighting design by Isabella Byrd).
The play’s most sympathetic character, at least from my viewpoint, is Gina’s daughter Emily (Julia McDermott), who is weak, needs assistance as she walks with a cane and has an illness that is not identified for us. Although she has worked for a right-to-life organization, her good friend is an abortion rights activist and she resents her mother’s ultra-conservative attitudes and those of others. She has a big scene in which she cries out against her physical condition and place in the world, and she asserts herself by not leaving the gathering with her mother.
Teresa (Zoë Winters) is a fast-talking and nasty conservative who rails against liberals. Kevin (John Zdrojeski) is a psychological mess who weeps in self-pity and bemoans the fact that he can’t get a girl and his penis has not seen use.
The conversations that rage through the night are intense and require special audience attention to sort out what everyone is saying and to grasp the author’s ideas that are piled into the dialogue that represents the assorted views of the characters. The overall thrust is that of right-wing ideology, not the author’s, but that of those he is examining.
The cast members, under the direction of Danya Taymor, act superbly in giving their all to interpret the thinking of those whom they portray. The problem, as cited above, is that there is far too much talk and not enough drama. The play comes across as one big bull session of ideas more conducive to the printed page than life on a stage. At the Mainstage of Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed October 8, 2019.