Playwrights Horizon Theatre, New York, NY, through November 17
Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, now extended through November 17 at New York’s Playwrights Horizons Theatre, has been hailed as a glimpse of the world of Catholic conservatives. Perhaps even a successor to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy—a template for decrypting Why Trump Won. Like Vance, who sought to explain his Rust Belt upbringing to outsiders, Arbery is writing from experience: He was one of eight children raised by his Catholic parents who both teach at Wyoming Catholic College. While Vance was recently received into the Catholic Church, Arbery’s relationship with his family’s faith is strained.
Both authors’ works are love letters to the communities they were raised in, and both their compassion and their corrections may catch their audiences by surprise. In Turning, the initial indication that the four young Catholics may not be what the audience expects comes in the first serious tête-a-tête between the twenty-something characters.
Kevin, in the middle of a prolonged burnout, and Teresa, a rising political provocateur in the Bannonite mold, are lingering outside a party, held in honor of the new president of the Catholic college they both attended. Kevin, yearning for “something true,” pleads with Teresa to have “a big conversation” with him, like they used to do. And he’s got something good, he promises: “It’s so messed up. It’ll lead to a four-hour conversation: Why the heck do we have to love the Virgin Mary?”
Once Teresa takes the bait, she quickly shifts into the language she’s most comfortable in—the political. The show is set just one week after Heather Heyer’s murder in Charlottesville, but Teresa is still focused on November 2016. She reminds Kevin that “We almost had a President who was the opposite of the Virgin Mary in every sense.”
So far, so inflammatory. But Teresa’s complaint against Clinton isn’t her policies, her feminism, or any of her particular faults. It’s her carefully cultivated blandness. Teresa castigates Clinton for having “scrubbed her image clean of any particularity, any humanity, any grace. A woman who was at the forefront of the effort to neuter all particularity.”
In contrast, the Virgin Mary is an example of “the scandal of the particular.” Or, as Paul puts it in his first letter to the Corinthians, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”
But most of the characters of Fourth Turning, Teresa especially, are anxious not to be or appear weak. In the intermissionless play, the four main characters cycle through the backyard, prying at each other’s fears and hopes.
Teresa (Zoë Winters) is longing for a war, listening to Steve Bannon and hoping to be one of the titular “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” who save civilization when all appears lost.
Justin (Jeb Kreager) wants to endure, trusting that if he is faithful in small things, he, and his faith, and the people who share it will persist through a time of tribulation.
Emily (Julia McDermott) wants to give herself up, possibly through offering the excruciating pain she endures from a long-lasting, slightly suspect illness (implied to be Lyme) for the redemption of the whole world.
Kevin (John Zdrojeski) wants a girlfriend. Or maybe to be a priest. Or just to be free of his addiction to pornography. Or simply not to have already drunk so very much before the play has begun.
In Arbery’s introduction to the play, he draws the reader’s attention to the two definitions of fugue. First, it is a meditation on a theme that layers and juxtaposes different voices. Second, it is “a state or period of loss of awareness of one’s identity.” The final resolution of a musical fugue never comes. Arbery chooses to avoid ending the dialogue by giving the show over to interruptions from another, diabolical voice. One of the characters erupts, speaking in a voice that is heavily implied to be the result of possession, and the show ends shortly thereafter, without resolution. Unfortunately, this attempt to end the show with a bang shortchanges the characters and the audience.
It feels like a lack of faith in the viewers of the play, or in the strengths of the early movements of the script. Teresa may have pledged her faith that “sometimes the moments that are the most grotesque are the closest to transcendent grace,” but the play grounds its grotesqueries in sudden, surreal revelations. It loses sight of the way that God is able to make much out of little.
The characters of Turning are often in agreement. None of them like Trump, though several of them voted for him. Even Teresa, who would be willing to work for him, describes him as an instrument (“a golem molded from the clay of mass media”) rather than a potential hero. They all have rosaries close to hand when one character asks to pray a decade together. And they all agree that abortion is a grave evil. They can agree on the truth without agreement on how to live it out in a world that disagrees with them.
Teresa and Emily clash about the limits of love. Emily admits to being friends with an abortion clinic worker, Olivia, and even admiring her. Emily and Theresa don’t disagree about the moral stakes of Olivia’s work, but Emily wants to convince Teresa that she can love the ways Olivia is generous, the ways she is selfless, even if it’s in the service of a bad cause.
Emily has worked for a crisis pregnancy center, Olivia for an abortion clinic, but both, Emily insists, are motivated by the love of women in need. Neither is a better person than the other, and it’s sheer bad luck they’re on opposite sides. Emily seems to live in hope of a Christmas Day truce, where soldiers poke their heads out of the trenches and sing together, embrace each other, because they’re more alike than they knew.
Teresa pushes back, first with sharp words, analogizing Olivia to a Nazi and saying there’s a point where being on the wrong side isn’t chance but a choice. But, when Emily challenges Teresa to imagine what it’s like to be Olivia, Teresa replies by imagining Olivia’s own empathy, and its limits:
She’s thinking: “hi, okay, I’m Olivia, I’m such a good person for helping all these women, I’m so great, and you’re about to get an abortion and you’re so great, and we’re all so great, and now let’s go into this room and do this thing and your doctor is so great, and oh btw if you start to wonder if there’s another presence here, someone small and silent with us, someone who could be just as great as us but will never have the chance, push that down, push it away, don’t think about it, we’re the great ones, here and now, because we say so.”
In answering Emily, Teresa stands condemned by the words she used to describe Olivia’s sin. Teresa has no patience with the small and silent. She pushes Kevin away when he asks for her help. He calls her out, saying if she’s so concerned with the particular, why doesn’t she care about his particularity, his grotesqueries. And she answers, “Because you’re weak. And it disgusts me.”
Teresa strives for strength as though in an arms race—everything that repulses her about her opponents she grafts onto herself, since it seems to be working for them and she needs it to work for her. When Gina (Michele Pawk), the college president they’ve been waiting to congratulate, finally makes it to the party, she describes Teresa’s error briefly and sharply: “Look at you, you’re worldly, you’re crude, and you’re weak.” Shortly afterwards, Gina mirrors all these faults herself. Gina may be the oldest character, having taught all the main characters except her daughter Emily, but age is not proof against pride and other weaknesses.
Arbery is especially suspicious of one particular way of seeking strength. He writes in his program notes, “My characters often want to disappear into someone else, or merge with the entire world. I find this impulse tragic, because not only is it impossible, but the attempt is very dangerous. You can’t fuse with other people. If you try, you—and everything that makes you you you—might disappear.”
Teresa (and Gina, in her Goldwater girl days), seek fusion politically. As they clash, they start tracking each other’s use of the word “we,” calling each other out for falling back on collectivism over character. But the volleyed “we’s” are a foreshadowing for a more apocalyptic ending, when one of the four main characters lets out a wild monologue, laded with we’s that aren’t the language of political coalition, but of Legion. For at least one of the characters, dissolving oneself into others, whether as political coalition or attempt at solidarity, has left an emptiness that invites haunting by the kinds of demons who aren’t metaphors.
Throughout the show, Justin, who is hosting the party, keeps trying to find private moments to clean his porch. He shot a deer, and some of the blood is still lingering where he dressed it. Something about the moment felt off, he admits, and his hand was shaking as he held the knife. There’s something wrong feeling about his whole house, he thinks, but the blood is the part of the problem he thinks he knows how to deal with.
Justin is the most tempted to handle the turmoil by hunkering down, focusing on what he can fix, but the disorder of the world finds him anyway. “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground,” the Lord tells Cain in Genesis.
The situation here seems parallel, but whose blood is it? Heather Heyer’s? The children from Olivia’s clinic? The closer, quieter wounds of Justin’s friends?
The praise for the show has frequently taken Teresa’s world-historical perspective—the show is remarkable because these people, in miniature, show us something about the important parts of the world. The ending Arbery wrote is a scaling up, favoring the whirlwind, the earthquake, the fire, rather than the still small voice in which the Lord is present to Elijah in the book of Kings.
If the show is looking for tragedy, it has a subtler and sadder moment that comes before the final conflagration. Teresa has lingered at the party with the galleys for her new book, a collection of vituperative columns, in her bag, hoping to get Gina’s blurb, and, more importantly, her blessing. By the time she pulls it out, we know she’ll be rebuffed. But she has one more thing to offer—she wants her old teacher, who instilled in her a love of George Washington, to know that she lives near where he fought the Battle of Brooklyn. But Teresa stumbles, trying to put her love into words, and Gina brushes her off. The moment for mending is lost.
But if Teresa, or any of the others, will be healed, that healing will come from small moments of redemptive joy. Without her love of her neighborhood, how will Teresa learn to love her neighbors?
When Gina best rebuts Teresa, her case isn’t political but personal. She isn’t afraid of missing out on the power dangled by Bannon and his sleazy ilk, Gina says, because it’s obvious their promises are empty. “I just don’t trust any of these men,” Gina says, “They’re all on their third wives.”
Or, as Christ put it in His parable of the unjust steward as recounted in Luke, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?”
The ultimate question is, what have these characters been entrusted with? Teresa seems, in her own way, to have been entrusted with Brooklyn—challenged to live in a city (and perhaps even a country) she believes is actively hostile to her beliefs. Kevin has been entrusted with himself, but constantly seeks to avoid taking responsibility to act rightly as long as he can stall with more big conversations. Emily has been entrusted with her own disease and suffering, and struggles when she tries to take on the suffering allotted to others. And Justin seems most likely to have been a good and faithful servant in his small way—the one who, at the close of the play, is most prepared to take on more.
And when the audience leaves the theater, turns their phones back on, and scrolls through their newsfeeds to observe the mess of our present politics and the failings of our politicians, they would do well to remember Gina’s warning. The dissolutions on our national stage began years ago, perhaps on quiet, personal nights like the one Arbery depicts, when (long before we chose to reward them for doing it) the people presently in power pushed away what was entrusted to them and grabbed for something else. Each audience member may be fortunate enough to not have their own failings played out for a national audience, or even an off-Broadway sized one. But each betrayal of what is given is no less weighty for not being played to the back of the house.