Enemy lines: 'Heroes of the Fourth Turning' at SF Playhouse

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday February 22, 2022
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The cast of SF Playhouse's 'Heroes of the Fourth Turning'
The cast of SF Playhouse's 'Heroes of the Fourth Turning'

Blue and red. Left and right. Us and them.

At times when society feels divided into radically opposed camps with intractable political differences, the arts are often a place to turn for solace. Theater can remind us of a common humanity that transcends any singular ideology.

It can. But that's not theater's mandate. And Will Arbery's Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a non-Kumbaya if ever there was one. Now at the San Francisco Playhouse in a riveting, ferocious production directed by Bill English, the 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist is set entirely within a highly intellectual conservative Catholic community.

Gathering at their rural Wyoming religious college are four relatively recent graduates, Justin (Jonny Moreno), Teresa (Ash Malloy), Kevin (Josh Schell) and Emily (Wera von Wulfen), whose mother Gina (Susi Damilano) has just been appointed as the school's new president in the ceremony that has brought the group of old friends back together after several years apart.

It's a scenario that brings to mind The Big Chill, but what many liberal San Francisco theatergoers will find truly chilling is that for all the soapy reveals (two characters had sex as students at the abstinence-only school; one has fraternized with abortionists; another is deep in an existential crisis that is fraying his mental health) none of their fundamentalist faith washes away over the course of the action.

Arbery's finely drawn characters articulately argue religious doctrine and social systems and MAGA politics, but they do so within a titanium bubble. The action is sent in 2017, and every one of the characters acknowledges voting for Trump, holding their noses to various degrees.

The play, named for a convoluted conservative theory that's explained to excess during one of the play's few dull spots, seems intended to show left-leaning audiences human shades of gray within an enemy political camp they'd otherwise be inclined to paint in broad black strokes.

It challenges such viewers to sit, squirming through their gut reactions, then jump a high bar of empathy. Director English, also the SF Playhouse's Artistic Director, frequently speaks of eliciting empathy as one of theater's highest goals.

Even if you can't quite make the leap to empathy, Heroes of the Fourth Turning is well worth seeing as anthropology. Playwright Arbery grew up in a community similar to the one depicted here. His parents were faculty members of a small Catholic college, and he knows his characters well. And the uniformly excellent cast etches them as distinctive individuals. You may not like these folks as people, but there's no denying the brilliance of their group portrait.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning, through March 5 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St. $25-$100. (415) 677-9596 www.sfplayhouse.org

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