"Heroes of the Fourth Turning" | 2 hrs. | Closing Date: Mar. 5, 2022 | San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St, San Francisco, CA 94102 | Tickets start at $25, some tickets get a $10 discount.
Of all the places I would have expected to hear “Pat Buchanan’s amazing!”, on-stage in a San Francisco theater was probably at the bottom of my list. But Heroes of the Fourth Turning is no ordinary play. It is a captivating, provocative piece of art you will thank yourself for seeing.
Heroes reunites three alumni of a conservative Catholic college, Kevin (Josh Schell), Theresa (Ash Malloy), and Justin (Johnny Moreno), who have returned to their alma mater for the inauguration of the new college president. Joined by Emily (Wera von Wulfen), the daughter of the incoming president, they hang around a campfire after a party and leap into a wide-ranging conversation about the states of their lives and their country. The characters, all in their late-20s with the exception of Justin, seem to have high hopes for their futures.
But it is these friends’ worries, not their hopes, which dominate the play. Each character struggles with being Catholic in a secular world hostile to their faith. The characters fret about the future of conservatism too; the play is set just after the 2017 violence in Charlottesville. They disagree, sometimes vehemently, with one another about the right approach to life and politics. Justin’s solution has been to retreat from the world and raise horses in rural Wyoming. He praises Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, a book popular among conservative Christians which encourages Christians to form peripheral communities that uphold their values. Kevin and Emily are wrecked by crises of faith caused by their own mental and physical fragilities.
For Teresa, the most intellectual and vivacious of the group, conservatives must engage with the world and fight for their values on the political battlefield. At times, she hints that America’s culture war might even become a real war, telling conservatives to “[go] blow for blow. And be ready for the war, if it happens.” The play’s title hints at this, itself a reference to Teresa’s (and Steve Bannon’s) favorite book, The Fourth Turning, that predicts a coming war which will determine America’s fate.
Heroes, directed by San Francisco Playhouse co-founder Bill English, illustrates the choices, religious and political, that young conservative Christians so often confront. Kevin is indecisive about certain elements of his faith. All are preoccupied by the need to start a family. A major theme is the decision of whether to raise their families in a progressive city where the high-status jobs are, or to live “among the good,” as Justin advocates, and place faith over career. The play also broaches the purpose of suffering, spiritual and physical, which Emily’s debilitating Lyme disease makes concrete.
To a liberal, or even a secular conservative, a play spotlighting these debates may seem bizarre at first. The foreignness of a play sympathetic to conservative arguments does make Heroes “radical,” to quote Arbery. But the topics of family, sacrifice, and yes, faith, are so central to our adulthood. Everyone should be made to grapple with them, particularly students on a campus that often avoids such conversations.
Heroes is at its strongest when the characters debate faith and politics. The peak of the play, an enthralling debate between Teresa and the new college president, Gina (Susi Damilano), depicts the contemporary struggle between ‘Trumpian’ conservatism and Burkean conservatism within the Republican Party. The play’s remarkably accurate portrayal of conservatives is owed to playwright Will Arbery having known Heroes’s characters his entire life. The son of two professors at Wyoming Catholic College, one can imagine Arbery’s family having the same discussions around the dinner table. The dialogue is excellent as a result and is well-acted. The play runs two hours with no intermission, but I did not think to check my watch until ten minutes remained.
Still, Arbery makes some missteps. A two-hour play should not have a lot of character development. The debate between Teresa and Gina features much more pathos than logos. Such is Broadway, I suppose. Arbery’s understanding of conservatives has its limits too; no fan of Steve Bannon, as Teresa is, would have claimed that “we (meaning conservatives like herself) are in control” of the country in 2017, especially a day after Bannon was pushed out of the White House.
But these are minor qualms with a play that has been so well-reviewed elsewhere and was a finalist for a Pulitzer. Heroes is a must-see for liberals and conservative viewers alike; I would not be writing this review otherwise. For liberals, the play offers an honest view into the inter-conservative debates that may determine America’s future. Conservatives will learn from hearing these debates also, but the real joy of Heroes is its very existence. To watch Heroes in San Francisco is to step through the looking-glass into an America where public entertainment takes conservatives and their values seriously. This alone makes the play worth the price of admission.