Review: HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING at Rogue Machine-Matrix

Pulitzer Prize finalist in L.A. Premiere at the Matrix

By: Sep. 01, 2023
Review: HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING at Rogue Machine-Matrix

The L.A. premiere of Will Arbery’s HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING is an example of Southland live stage at its finest – an intelligent, slickly-cast think play, compellingly directed by Rogue Theatre Company Artistic Director Guillermo Cienfuegos for a company, RTC, that rarely misfires. The playwright is himself a hot property, and the work was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The two hours you will spend in the Matrix Theatre taking in HEROES during its run will – and should – count as time validating the quality of theater that our region produces.

You may be sensing a qualifying “however” in the offing. Here it is. As good as Arbery’s play is, the experience of sitting through is also about as unsettling as it gets. And not simply because it begins with a character shooting and gutting a deer or because subsequent action is periodically interrupted by a piercing screeching noise that that same character explains as a generator malfunction.

No, HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING is terrifying in large measure because of its characters – who they are, what they believe and the circumstance in which Arbery has placed them – and how human he has managed to make them. The son of conservative, Catholic academics, the playwright grew up listening to the kind of discussions that the heroes of HEROES – Emily, Kevin, Teresa, Justin, and Gina – engage in. The playwright has moved these characters and their ideologies forward into a tiny town in Wyoming, to August of 2017, one week after the Charlottsville riot, ground zero of Donald Trump’s America. Teresa, a very frightening character, predicts that a war is coming. And damned if one or more of the individuals we are observing might be the people to start it.

The occasion is a party celebrating the inauguration of Dr. Gina Presson as the president of Transfiguration College of Wyoming. In this tiny community, most of the people we meet either attended this institution or know Dr. Presson – a longtime teacher at TCW – and her family. Which makes this gathering also something of a reunion.

Teresa (played by Evangeline Edwards) is an author, podcaster and scholar who bucked against some of the dictates of TCW when she was a student, but now embraces every element of far-right ideology with a death grip. In from New York, she is bursting at the proverbial seams for an opportunity to have a dialog with Dr. Presson. Teresa’s friend from college/whipping boy is Kevin (Samuel Garnett), a dissolute and bitterly confused alumni who wants a girlfriend and agonizes over whether he should become a priest. Dr. Presson’s daughter Emily (Emily James) has a heart full of love and compassion for everybody including for those who the far right say are underserving, like transgender people or people who have abortions. Emily is ill with a disease that is probably killing her, but she’s here. Kevin, Teresa and Emily are all in their mid to late 20s.

Then there’s Justin (Stephen Tyler Howell). A little older than the rest, he is a divorced, former Marine marksman, now quite devout. It’s his porch, his house, his gathering. He’s the guy who takes down the deer in the first scene and finds his hands shaking as he tries to gut it. Dr. Presson will eventually arrive (in the person of the redoubtable Roxanne Hart). By the time she gets there, the party will be over, yet it will also be just beginning.

Although some may find the ideologies of these people repugnant, Arbery goes to considerable pains to make his characters understandable with human failings. Given the way they treat each other – and themselves – that can be a heavy lift. When he’s not vomiting into the firepit, a drunken Kevin can never stop probing and needling.  And when Teresa gets on a roll, with Kevin or with Dr. Presson, things really start to cook. These Catholics in a tiny middle America town get into discussions – or diatribes – about hot button topics. Reckonings are coming, but for much of the play it’s not clear in what form these will take. Justin owns at least one gun; we’ve seen him use it.

Wherever you land politically, you will probably find something in FOURTH TURNING that one of these characters says or does that gets you nodding, shaking your head or seriously steamed. For many, that person will be Teresa. In a performance as smart as it is dangerous, Edwards makes her frightening, but still somehow infuses the character with human needs. She wants validation; someone to love and appreciate her.

Garnett’s Kevin is another audience squirmer. Evoking a young John Cusack, the actor gives us a character who – one senses – would probably be exasperating and incendiary even if he wasn’t liquored up. The guy professes himself to be the ignorant one among mental giants, asking the tough ideological questions to which he should know the answers. Or maybe Kevin knows exactly what he’s doing. In Garnett’s performance, we can never be sure, which is part of what makes it so effective. If FOURTH TURNING is in some ways autobiographical, Kevin might well be Arbery’s stand-in.

Or maybe it’s Emily. In James’s sensitive work, we immediately gravitate toward this kind and seriously ill young woman, the only one with progressive views that have to be antithetical to those of her mother (and certainly to Teresa’s). Given how beautifully fleshed out and complicated James’s performance is, Emily is fascinating not because she earns any kind of pity, but because she is the play’s moral compass.

I have talked about how HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING is a play that is building towards something cathartic. Charlottsville has happened and – although it’s a couple of years away – the January 6, 2021 insurrection should be top of mind to anybody paying attention. On a smaller level, the arrival of Dr. Presson at this party in her honor promises sparks. Granted, there’s plenty of to-do among the younger set before she gets there, but when Arbery’s polarizing Godot finally does make her entrance, well, who wouldn’t expect fireworks? she’s about to take over, after all. Roxanne Hart’s Dr. Presson is slight, thoughtful, as steely as she is political.  Hart makes her as compelling as she is frightening, a person who jump between warmth, dismissive or iciness as the need dictates.

Cienfuegos is fortunate to have her, as he is to have this ensemble, and this play. Just don’t get comfortable. That’s the idea.

HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING plays through October 2 at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., L.A.  

Photo of Stephen Tyler Howell, Evangeline Edwards, Emily James and Roxanne Hart by John Perrin Flynn



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