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Wyoming Catholic College was incorporated in 2005, and is the only private college in the entire state. It has fewer than 200 students, all of whom must follow strict rules of conduct, such as forbidden smartphone use and a detailed dress code. They study a “great books” curriculum, akin to the less religious, less conservative curriculum of St. John’s College.
This context is crucial to understanding Heroes of the Fourth Turning, now running at Studio Theatre. Playwright Will Arbery sets his involving, dark drama in a facsimile of the college, where his father is its current president. The school is crucial to the identity of the characters: At best it forges strong friendships, and at worst it warps their sense of how they fit in the world. They debate and espouse conservative viewpoints, and, crucially, Arbery never expects his audience to agree with the characters. Instead, his play is an act of challenging empathy, a look into how strict religious dogma often does not give true believers the answers they need.
Before any characters speak, there is an onstage gunshot. A burly young man named Justin (Gregory Connors) wanders into his backyard where he hears rustling in the distance (set designer Yu Shibagaki convincingly transforms the performance space into the Wyoming forest). He grabs his hunting rifle and fires at a deer, eventually bringing its carcass to the stage. Something strange happens right before he begins butchering the animal: His hand spasms, almost as if his body is fighting against his instincts as a hunter. It is a strange opening, one that creates consistent unease—as well as the possibility of the supernatural—by showing a strained relationship with violence. After the deer carcass leaves the stage, the spot where it lay grows in unspoken significance, as if the same force that seizes Justin’s hand also overwhelms the other characters.
Later that day, Justin hosts some friends for a party. They are there to celebrate their former professor (Naomi Jacobson), who was just inaugurated as the latest college president, but she is late to arrive. Until then, the professor’s former students hang out, drink, and argue. Kevin (Louis Reyes McWilliams) is a goofy motormouth, the kind of 20-something who sees inebriation as an opportunity for “big conversation.” This disgusts his friend Teresa (Laura C. Harris), a New York-based reactionary who idolizes Steve Bannon and unironically calls Kevin “soy boy.” Kevin has a crush on her, obviously, and another crush on the professor’s daughter Emily (Sophia Lillis), who could not be more different: Afflicted by an unnamed illness, Emily wanders the stage with a cane and genuinely believes in compassionate conservatism. Religion and politics weighs on everyone’s mind, in no small part because the play is set in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
Arbery’s dialogue ably mixes realism with loftier language, a reminder these former students are used to distraction-free debate and name-checking theologians or philosophers. In some way or another, they represent a different faction of modern conservative thinking, and although they are part of the same reliable voting bloc, their differences are fierce and acrimonious. Their only common ground is their disgust with American secularism, which they find immoral and decadent. As the most practiced debater, Teresa wants to jump-start a kind of holy war that will wipe out western liberalism, while Justin is the kind of libertarian who wants to live peacefully until the actual rapture. Yes, their arguments can be horrifying, like when they use the word “holocaust” to describe abortion, and yet they can be thrilling, too. Arbery may surprise his coastal liberal elite audience, myself included, through the logic and common ground he unearths in his characters.
Along with unlikely sympathy, Heroes of the Fourth Turning gives each of the five actors a major moment to dominate the stage. Jacobson is memorable as the professor, a kind of middle-aged woman who tolerates youthful bullshit up to a point, and uses nasty language to deflect from her dubious past. She has a fierce scene with Harris, who as Teresa wants to recruit the others for a big conflict she struggles to define. McWilliams’ performance as Kevin, someone both intimidated and drunk, is more reactive, and yet his increasingly unhinged behavior suggests his internal rot is part of a bigger identity crisis than he—or anyone else—can handle (i.e., he is not as conservative as he thinks). Director Sivian Battat shrewdly contrasts McWilliams’ soy boy masculinity with Connors, who carries himself with strength and quiet deference. These are all facades, in some way or another, each major moment is also an opportunity for Arbery to disabuse his characters of their idealized selves.
In more ways than one, the biggest surprise is from Lillis. You may recognize her from the 2017 and 2019 film adaptation of Stephen King’s IT, the Netflix series I Am Not Okay With This, or HBO’s Sharp Objects. It is rare for a TV and movie actor of such fame to appear in D.C. theater, and two scenes in particular establish her formidable stage presence. The first is Emily’s debate with Teresa over abortion, one where Emily cuts through the bullshit to find the misogyny at the heart of Teresa’s argument. The second scene arrives at the play’s conclusion—an increasingly unhinged monologue of pure resentment, anger, and bile. Lillis reaches deep within herself for the rarest stage acting: the kind that is so raw and nakedly emotional that you worry for what it requires of the performer. The monologue is also a one-eighty from Emily’s character up to that point, the purest distillation of Arbery’s idea we all fight a constant battle against demons we cannot fully fathom.
Sound designer Sinan Refik Zafar is another key part of Battat’s production team. Several times throughout Fourth Turning, there is an alarming noise that blares through the loudspeakers, keeping both the characters and audience off-kilter (the actors immediately grab their ears). There is some explanation for the noise, although Arbery keeps it ambiguous enough so that the audience must decide its meaning for themselves. Either way, the literal discord reminds us there is so much that frightens us, that we do not understand, and never will. Emily finds a way to make peace with that, even if her methods are little comfort to her mother’s compromised legacy and Teresa’s hollow saber-rattling. As the night draws to a close, one character’s final, simple plea is more affecting than all the impressive rhetoric and pithy insults they use to protect themselves: “I need a buddy.” What solace is any big conversation when we can’t have that?
Heroes of the Fourth Turning, written by Will Arbery and directed by Sivian Battat, plays at The Studio Theatre until Oct. 30. studiotheatre.org. $50–$95.
Editor’s note: The production was originally scheduled to end on Oct. 23, but was extended for five additional performances on Oct. 7.)