In a world in which a repulsive con man can get elected president and turn the entire Republican party into a credulous and insane mob, it’s to be expected that somebody would try to write a play about how the conservative movement has become so unhinged. Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is and isn’t that play. It doesn’t deal with the MAGA-hat wearing rubes we see constantly on our televisions, or the politicians racing each other to the bottom with their racist dog whistles and ever more outrageous lies. Instead it deals with intelligent conservatives who are struggling with their beliefs, which makes it unique in our current environment. It’s a very smart, heartfelt, darkly funny drama, and the current Los Angeles premiere by Rogue Machine is excellent.
In 2017 in Wyoming, a group of friends and ex-students from conservative Catholic school Transfiguration College are having a party to celebrate Emily’s (Emily James) mother, Gina (Roxanne Hart) becoming president of that institution. Justin (Stephen Tyler Howell), whose home is the location of the party, peforms “outlaw country” and plays at being the strong, silent type. Kevin (Samuel Garnett) is very drunk and riddled with self-doubt, while Emily tries to overcome chronic pain and hope Justin notices her. Teresa (Evangeline Edwards), a charismatic, verbally dexterous true believer, is mainly there to get a publicity blurb from Gina for her new book. As the evening progresses and uncomfortable truths are shared, the party becomes more of a wake.
Howell is thoroughly convincing as Justin, a man trying to come off as a western archetype of maleness but instead is secretly afraid of the world. Hart doesn’t have as much stage time as the other four actors, but she makes all her time count with her wryly amusing performance as a woman who has gradually become “more agrarian than conservative” but can still put up an impressive fight when she’s challenged. James is very good as the kindly Emily, struggling so hard to not let the pain of her illness fully absorb her. Garnett shines in a fully committed performance as the tormented Kevin, a man who aspires to be a “holy fool,” especially in a scene towards the end of the show in which he seemingly can’t stop apologizing, almost for his very existence. Finally, Edwards is superb as the Ann Coulter-esque Teresa, a woman who proclaims that “empathy is empty” and whose skill at verbal combat scares her own friends into uncomfortable silence.
Director Guillermo Cienfuegos gets detailed, rich performances from his cast, and stages this talky play in a way that allows the (admittedly very strong) speeches to sing instead of stultify. Arbery is a very talented writer, and his dialogue mixes the philosophical and political with admirable deftness. His true strength in this work, however, is to humanize people with repellent beliefs, and he largely succeeds in that goal. Not everything works – a subplot with sudden mysterious noise and a final monologue that goes over the top demonstrate this – but overall this is an extremely impressive play and a fantastic production of it. My only quibble with the show is that I wish Arbery hadn’t focused on the Republican equivalent of unicorns – rare beings that are almost never encountered in daily life – and instead had perhaps shone a light on the everyday madness of Trump’s voters, a dilemma that could use more insight.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning is produced by Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre and plays through October 2, 2023. Tickets are available here.
8pm Fridays, Saturdays, & Mondays,
(No performances September 10, 11)
Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre
7657 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046