Theater Review: HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING (San Francisco Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on February 24, 2022

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

To be a hero or a heroine, one must give an order to oneself.
Simone Weil

One of the best new plays to come down the pike in years, Will Arbery’s considered 150-minute one-act may seem to some a level-headed treatise on what it means to be a conservative in the age of Trump. Yet unlike most issue plays of our age, the universalisms here elevate the arguments about abortion, gays, and war. We’ve heard debates, pro and con, ad infinitum since the Reagan years (you’ll hear names of modern mass-media pundits here as well, such as Steve Bannon and Pat Buchanan). While characters may debate the role of conservatism in their lives, this is a play about people who are trying to make sense of the system into which they were born: Christian Conservatism in America. These happen to be Catholics, yes, but they do grapple with their choices (one character states that he vomited after voting for Trump).

In Heroes of the Fourth Turning at the San Francisco Playhouse through March 5, we have a teacher (Susi Damilano as Gina) at a Wyoming Catholic college who has just been made its president. To honor the revered educator’s new position, ex-students war-mongering Teresa (Ash Malloy), Kevin (Josh Schell) and Justin (Johnny Moreno) and Gina’s daughter Emily (Wera von Wulfen) have gathered in the forested backyard of Justin’s rustic Wyoming cabin for a reunion — one which happens to be on the heels of a white-supremacist riot in Charlottesville. Emily — crippled by, we assume, Lyme Disease, but it rightfully remains a mystery — is not so reverent towards mom.

What could easily have been a bloviating political tirade against liberals becomes — with the aid of magical realism and the possibility that possession lurks within us all — a truly thoughtful dialogue of four soul-searching Christians in the middle of our Fourth Turning. This titular reference is part of the Strauss–Howe theory, which states that there is a recurring generation cycle in American and global history. It is a miracle of Arbery’s genius character sketches and relentless dialogue that we find ourselves sympathizing with these well-spoken young people. Director Bill English could have upped the ante here with his actors by making them more internally conflicted (Schell is a standout, playing drunk the entire time), but the 2 and 1/2 intermissionless hours positively fly by. A searing, vital, important play about ideological divides, even on the same “side.”

photos by Jessica Palopoli

Heroes of the Fourth Turning
San Francisco Playhouse
Tues-Thurs at 7; Fri and Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 (show times vary)
ends on March 5, 2022
for tickets ($25 – $100), call 415.677.9596 or visit SF Playhouse

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