There is a moment in the haunting and eerie production of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” at San Francisco Playhouse that speaks to a larger reality. While a group of conservative friends chat about their feelings on abortion, Emily brings forth a bit of a nuanced view. You see, she has a friend who is a kind and gentle soul, a fantastic person who happens to work for Planned Parenthood. Yet the highly pious Teresa shuts down any semblance of what it means to be good while fraternizing with an enemy.
This friend can’t be a good person if she aids and abets murder, Teresa strongly declares. There is no middle ground in this conversation. Murder is wrong, and that makes one who engages in abortion a murderer, so Teresa’s logic goes. If one group of people apply pro-choice principles, but the other leaves no space for anything else other than murder, where do you go from there? Productive discourse has left the porch for this curious group of folks, and it sure feels like it ain’t coming back.
Gee, sounds familiar.
The production, with a Pulitzer finalist script by Will Arbery and directed with subtlety by Bill English, is one that bears down for 150 minutes without stopping. Conversations are uncomfortable, hypocrisy is in full bloom, and everyone is challenged in some way, with Donald Trump in the middle of the fray. When it comes to the discourse of these folks, he is either a bloated gas bag or sent to earth to correct all the societal wrongs that the woke mob hath wrought to good Christians everywhere.
While Arbery’s script dangles a prescience that makes Nostradamus look positively pedestrian, plenty of the play’s ideas don’t always come to full fruition. One might yearn for even more fireworks at such charged topics, especially when it comes to these conservative Christians who find a lot to disagree about. Still, it’s a very strong penning by Arbery, set in a college town very familiar to him – both his parents have served as professors at a college that mirrors the fictional Transfiguration College of Wyoming.
The connotation of that phrase “college town” takes on an entirely different form when it comes to Transfiguration. It’s a spot that spends a lot of time telling you what not to do – you can’t be gay, no sex, no drinking, no, no, no. But pray. Bible. More prayers. Rinse, repeat.
Justin (Johnny Moreno) is one who continued to live in town after he received his degree from this bastion of highly conservative Christendom. Also in attendance are Emily (Wera von Wulfen), who is dealing with a mysterious, debilitating illness, and the bumbling Kevin (Josh Schell), who is looking for love with anyone who will show interest, admitting to blowing chunks after his vote for Trump.
There are some really challenging moments that the group is dealing with, namely the timing of their gathering not long after the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, VA. For the country, this turning point of vitriol permeated through the second half of the 2010s, manifesting in an infinite amount of ways.
It is Teresa (Ash Malloy) who comes to this gathering with a self-assurance that is mystifying and off-putting at the same time. She opines with impunity, drilling down on every belief that her self-assured power blazer allows. The construction of this character is a delightful setup for the payoff that comes when the renowned professor and Emily’s mother Gina (Susi Damilano) arrives at the gathering.
These moments between the Bannon stan Teresa and her former professor, the Barry Goldwater Republican Gina, are some of the most compelling engagements that the play offers, with fresh organic movement by the superb Malloy and the skilled presence of Damilano. Their debates, interrupted by a viciously piercing horn of some kind that’s blamed on a faulty generator, takes a more ominous tone as characters begin to explode.
But what is that sound that destroys the ears of everyone? Might it be a call to action? A reminder to combat more viciously than ever? Political discourse at present seems to be about entering your bubble and hitting as hard as you can towards anyone trying to make it pop. Fighting against enemies, such as those of the LGBTQIA+ community, pro-choice proponents and people of color who strive for equivalence, threatens the very existence of these entrenched folks.
There is no doubt that political conversations have gotten untenable among those who disagree for many years now, amplified mightily since 2015. Arbery’s play doesn’t take a stance on what is right or wrong, which is part of its brilliance. It’s a play of ideas, an examination of those who continue to fight for relevance because their beliefs are outdated and archaic in today’s heterogeneous world – everyone is playing a zero-sum game.
An audience may find these people horrific (I did) as they spout the most egregious white privilege, but they certainly see themselves as heroes readying for war. Each character has a physical or mental malady that handcuffs their ability to move forward. And when all is said and done, it makes for a very difficult reconciliation of these very lonely, self-proclaimed heroes.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Francisco Playhouse presents “Heroes of the Fourth Turning”
Written by Will Arbery
Directed by Bill English
The Word: The play is 150 straight minutes with plenty of explosive content. The strong ensemble cast creates one helluva conversation piece.
Running time: Two hours, 30 minutes, no intermission
450 Post St. San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $25 – $100
For tickets, call (415) 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org