It’s almost too much to imagine: a play with five characters, four former students returning to their college in Wyoming to celebrate the appointment of their mentor as college president. All five characters are some shade of conservative, as is the college they attended. They come together, and they clash, each articulating a perspective and wanting to convince the others of the rightness of what they believe, or at least be understood.
What’s hard to imagine is that this play, Heroes of the Fourth Turning by Will Arbery, was successfully staged in New York City and received positive reviews by the New Yorker, The New York Times, Catholic Herald, Time Out, and Vulture, among others. And the characters are not treated as caricatures, as conservatives often are in contemporary culture, but as real people with hearts, minds and passions.
Justin is the older student, in his late 30s, playing a kind of caretaker role and always trying to help. Teresa lives in Brooklyn, surrounded by progressives, and she is on a crusade to save America from progressive destruction. Emily is ailing and physically frail, or thinks she is, and wants everyone to see all sides of everything. Kevin is the almost hostile skeptic, deciding he’s lost his faith, or perhaps not. And Gina, the new college president, is the pragmatic Never Trumper conservative. This five come together, and soon the fireworks begin.
The title of the play is taken from a book published in 1997, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny by William Strauss and Neil Lowe. They hypothesized four recurring cycles in American history: a period of confidence, followed by a period of rebellion, then an unraveling, and finally the crisis of the “fourth turning,” a rebirth of a new order. Teresa argues that the crisis of the fourth turning is upon America, and it’s time to fight for what they believe. No one else agrees, especially Gina, the college president.
What is bared is that the characters are indeed facing a crisis, but it’s more personal than a rebirth of the existing social and political order.
Arbery received a B.A. degree in English and drama from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from Northwestern University. A playwright and filmmaker, he’s written five plays: Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Plano, Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, Wheelchair, and You Hateful Things. He’s currently under commission from Playwrights Horizons and Shadowcatcher Entertainment.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a fascinating play to read. Conservatives might be surprised to see some of themselves in each of the five characters. (I was.) Non-conservatives might be surprised to find conservative characters depicted as living, breathing, intelligent people, instead of the usual cartoons presented by the news media. More important are the ideas and often challenging discussion around empathy, academia, and what many perceive as the collapse of the social order.
(Note: The play is not available at any of the usual outlets, including Amazon, but can be found at Playwrights Horizon.)
Top photograph: A scene from the recent production of Heroes of the Fourth Turning in New York.