‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning’: Probing the souls of young Catholic conservatives
From left, Emily James, Stephen Tyler Howell, Roxanne Hart, Evangeline Edwards, Samuel Garnett / John Perrin Flynn

LOS ANGELES An astonishing theatrical outing awaits you in Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning now on the boards at Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre. One late night—it’s August 19, 2017, two days before “the Great American Eclipse” and one week after the Charlottesville riot—four young Roman Catholic conservatives have gathered to celebrate their beloved influential former teacher Gina (Roxanne Hart), who that afternoon has been inducted as president of their tiny Transfiguration College of Wyoming. The reunion turns spiteful and angry, as each of her former students unfolds their hurt and reveals the extreme lengths they have traveled in vain to heal themselves. This production is the Southern California premiere.

Gina’s daughter Emily (Emily James) has returned home from her work back East counseling pregnant women to fulfill God’s work and keep their babies, but she is barely ambulatory, possessed by a mysterious, painful, and crippling intestinal illness for which she gets little sympathy from her mother. Kevin (Samuel Garnett) plays the role of a “holy fool,” who has drowned his existential insecurities in liquor, believing that only the great love of a woman can salvage him. Teresa (Evangeline Edwards), once chastised as a “slut” for her sexual escapades as a student, but forgiven and welcomed back, is now living in Brooklyn, close to the site of George Washington’s battle against the British. She runs a successful podcast featuring her “Fourth Turning” rants that she’d like to see published in book form. She is an acolyte of Steve Bannon, brooking no qualified excuses for any woman’s reproductive choices, unable to grasp or grapple with the range of human experience Emily has witnessed dealing with her clients, and sure as she can be of anything, that a final, cleansing war is upon us. “There’s no more shame, not from our side,” she declares. The fourth fellow graduate is Justin (Stephen Tyler Howell), 38, who’s been in the military, seen and done a lot of stuff he can’t be proud of, hates LGBTQs (is there a backstory here?), is tormented by his thwarted love for both Emily and Teresa, still lives in his little cabin in the woods outside of town (where the play is set) as a kind of survivalist, and urges Gina to institute military training on campus (perhaps as a path to employment for himself).

How fractured, how violent, how opinionated, hysterical, and lacking in empathy have their Catholic teachings evolved! How tortured some of their old feelings and incidents still remain! How out of reach is any sense of healing!

Stephen Tyler Howell and Emily James / John Perrin Flynn

Heroes of the Fourth Turning received its premiere production at Playwrights Horizon in New York in 2019. A Pulitzer Prize finalist play, it speaks to a nation at war with itself, in a language tinged with grace and lit with clarity.

The play’s title will need no explanation for many readers and theatergoers. But for others, admittedly including myself, a little backgrounding is needed. Back in 1997, co-authors William Strauss and Neil Howe released the widely consumed The Fourth Turning, positing a recurring four-generation cycle of “turnings” in American history, each one lasting about 20 years: Renewal, stabilization, decline, and crisis. A complete cycle would take about 80 years, or one human lifetime. They saw the current cycle beginning in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II, leading through post-war “normalcy,” the eruptions of the 1960s and ’70s, the neoliberal decline (with manufacturing and investment fleeing abroad), and the current political and cultural crisis only in part epitomized by the phenomenon of Donald Trump.

In its latest iteration, The Fourth Turning Is Here (2023), penned by Neil Howe alone, who reminds us of the proposition millions of readers have already ingested from the previous volumes, “a final, perilous era arrives once each lifetime…marked by civic upheaval and national mobilization, both traumatic and transformative. That era, reshaping the social and political landscape, is unfolding now.” Arbery started writing Heroes immediately after Trump’s election in 2016.

Strauss and Howe’s work is not entirely original, of course. Many cultures perceive cyclical stages of life. And those who look back in history often see such rhythms, rhymes, and patterns recurring frequently. Most revolutions have been analyzed in precisely those concepts, in many cases—at least from a ruling-class perspective—ending in terror (France, Russia). Though it depends on whose ox is being gored: Historians today are just as apt to view the American Revolution as also ending in terror if you’re looking at it from the point of view of millions of enslaved people in forced labor camps.

Enthusiasm for the original Fourth Turning came not only from the right. Vice President Al Gore called it “the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read” and circulated copies of it to Congressmembers and a wide circle of friends.

The very image used on the program cover may serve to illustrate the upheaval Arbery refers to. At first glance, it appears to be a face crowned with a pope’s mitre with the cross ascendant. But turn it upside down and the picture comes into full view: a bloodied deer, the flag’s five-pointed stars caught in his antlers. In the Hebrew Bible, the deer (or the graceful gazelle), referenced in Psalm 42:1, symbolizes the soul thirsting for God as a deer thirsts for water. The Christological interpretation, naturally, is the ongoing search for Christ and salvation, holiness, and safety.

The opening scene of the play illustrates the playwright’s theme spectacularly. We see Justin (Stephen Tyler Howell) quietly sitting on the front porch of his little house in the woods. He rises noiselessly, props his rifle on the railing, stalks and aims, and with one shot kills the approaching deer he’s targeted through the trees. He drags its dead body onto the stage, up the stairs, onto the porch and into the house. We don’t even learn that he intends the deer as venison for himself or anyone. He immediately feels shame and remorse, struggling, like Lady Macbeth, to wipe away its bloody trail. He immediately recognizes he has done violence to everything his Catholic tradition has taught him.

As if each of Arbery’s characters weren’t themselves in urgent need of an exorcism to take away the anguish, there’s a deafening recurrent scream like the alarm of a high-alert catastrophic weather or crime event that breaks out occasionally. Justin unconvincingly says it’s from his car’s generator, but could it be something else? Perhaps it’s the house itself—a symbol of the whole society—or the whole universe wailing for release.

Generally speaking, the theater is a venue for the affirmation of liberal ideas. Here we get five conservative Catholics, with nary a liberation theologist in sight, jousting for leadership in the way forward. Their monologues, which are all brilliant theatrical coups in and of themselves, define who and what they are ideologically, but it’s in the dialogue where we see the nuances of their characters fleshed out. What we get from these “owning the libs” folk is what one might expect: a great deal of punching down, à la Trump.

Though these characters come straight from the playwright’s own childhood experiences—his own parents teach at such a school in Wyoming—I believe an audience is meant to abhor what they stand for, at the same time that he lays bare where they are coming from. Perhaps that is itself one of the great challenges for liberal and progressive America: to dialogue with our fellow Americans, poor and middle-class right-wingers, and try to understand their fears, concerns, their terror, and why they can be so easily motivated to act and vote against their own interests.

The play opened on Saturday, the 19th. And just the day before, Angelenos were shocked by the murder of Laura Ann Carleton, a shopowner in nearby Lake Arrowhead who had the courage to fly a Pride flag in front of her store. A fanatical anti-LGBTQ Christian named Travis Ikeguchi had been threatening her, and that day entered the store, shot her dead, fled, and was later cornered and killed by the police. As with Charlottesville, let no one harbor the illusion that such bombastic, polarizing rhetoric won’t have its consequences. It most certainly will and does. The war Pat Buchanan, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and their followers are embracing is indeed here.

“When I voted for Obama in 2008, the first time I was old enough to vote,” the playwright recalls in a program note, “I kept my choice hidden from my friends and family in Texas. On winter break, my best friend teased it out of me. He was incensed. He called me an abortionist. What a strange thing. I cast a vote, and suddenly I was indistinguishable from his mental picture of evil. My vote had transformed me into them.”

Director Guillermo Cienfuegos, who serves as artistic director at Rogue Machine Theatre, along with Founding Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn, is the first and most compelling reason I chose to attend and review this play. Infallibly, he chooses top-drawer material that forces an audience to ponder deeply. And he gets his actors to rise, I believe, to heights they never could have imagined from themselves. Each of these five performances is alone worth the price of admission.

Is there a protagonist around whom the play revolves? Not the rational, professorial Gina, the new college president and the long-ago mentor of these four young adults, despite the fact that it is her investiture that has brought the group together again. She deems her former students’ politics as simply “un-Christian.” (Incidentally, Gina recalls her youth in the Barry Goldwater campaign where she shared a platform with the young Hillary Clinton. As soon as she mentioned that name, it occurred to me that Roxanne Hart would make an excellent Clinton in a play sometime.)

There’s some hope for Justin that involves a kind of retreat from the real world that torments him so, and a promise of redemption for Kevin that conceivably might work out. There’s no hope for Teresa, who is soon to be married, but the playwright is mum about the details. To some fellow fanatic? That doesn’t bode well either.

Measured by the degree to which a character grows and changes during the course of the play, the protagonist would have to be Gina’s daughter Emily, who eventually finds within her the resources for her own healing. Perhaps her illness is more psychosomatic than medical; one wants to think so.

The topic is extremely challenging—which is a good thing—and the production is superior in every respect. Perhaps as many questions are left unanswered as settled, but bottom line, this is one play not to be missed.

“With political and cultural divisions in our country growing ever more profound,” comments Cienfuegos in his program note, “I believe we need to ask ourselves: do we only reserve our tolerance and love for those with whom we agree? Can we try to understand even those who do not hold our same views or believe as we do? That’s the challenge we’re presenting here tonight.”

Stephanie Kerley Schwartz is responsible for the scenic design, Dan Weingarten for the lighting, Chris Moscatiello for sound, and Christine Cover Ferro for costumes. John Perrin Flynn serves as dramaturg), and Victoria Hoffman as casting director.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning runs at 8 p.m. Fri., Sat., and Mon., and at 3 p.m. on Sun. through October 2. Rogue Machine (in the Matrix Theatre), is located at 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles 90046. Pay-What-You-Want Fridays are Sept. 1 (min. $10), Sept. 8 (min. $15), and Sept. 15 and 22 (min. $20). (No performances Sept. 10, 11.)

Reservations: https://www.roguemachinetheatre.org/ or for more information (855) 585-5185. The show runs in “real time” for two hours with no intermission.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.