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Review: HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING at SF Playhouse

Arbery's cerebral script is both shocking and illuminating in its chilling portrayal of delusion and devotion in its extremes.

Review: HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING at SF Playhouse

Heroes of the Fourth Turning

Written by Will Arbery

Directed by Bill English

SF Playhouse

You won't see the likes of Will Arbery's Heroes of the Fourth Turning come around that often - a rigorous, haunting didactic on the religious right seen through the eyes of four young conservatives each struggling through a dark night of spiritual turmoil. Coming on the heels of Charlottesville and Trump, Arbery's cerebral script is both shocking and illuminating in its chilling portrayal of delusion and devotion in its extremes.

Bravo to Bill English for mounting this production in uber liberal San Francisco, where the opening night audience either nervously tittered or gasped at the audacity of the dialogue. The framework is simple; four alumni of a Wyoming Catholic college await a visit from their mentor Gina, recently named president of said college. We get to know the four during the long wait for Gina's arrival - a not-so-friendly escalating catfight over opposing ideologies.

Review: HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING at SF Playhouse
Emily (Wera von Wulfen) and Justin (Johnny Moreno*) have a backyard conversation

The host Justin, played with rugged stoicism by Johnny Moreno, is a disturbed loner, spouting homophobic rants. Emily, sweetly played by Wera von Wulfen, is a kind soul, a Christian with a heart full enough for those she's supposed to despise, aching in pain with an unknown disease that racks her body. Josh Schell plays the drunken Kevin, the questioner and devil's advocate, so full of self-loathing that "I'm sorry" becomes his mantra. The powerful Teresa, an authoritarian extremist, goes on the warpath and is the focus of Arbery's archetypical right-winger. Ash Malloy gets the lion share of the rhetoric, making Teresa an unsympathetic harpy.

Lighting designer Heather Kenyon keeps it dark and ominous to match the unfailing confrontations between these 'friends'. The ideological clashes turn personal and its mano y mano with recriminations and insults. Josh Schell and Ash Malloy get the real juicy parts, rising to the occasion with sparkling performances.

Review: HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING at SF Playhouse
Gina (Susi Damilano*, right) tries to break through to her former student, Teresa (Ash Malloy*) as Kevin (Josh Schell*) looks on.

Well into the two hour plus non-stop action we finally meet Gina (Susi Damilano), Emily's mother. She's a tad bit sauced, self-congratulatory and quickly becomes horrified by both the tone and message of the conversations. Instead of acceptance, Teresa is upbraided by her mentor. Gina feels betrayed by her pupils who obviously misunderstood her teaching. Susi Damilano's Gina might be the true hero here even if she is as religiously wonky as all the rest.

There's plenty to contemplate in Arbery's literate and ominous script, from racism and sexism to the impending 'holy war'. Seen from the flip side of every liberal idea I call sacred, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, winner of the 2020 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, is a fascinating glimpse into the alarming dark underbelly that continues to lurk in the American psyche.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning continues through March 5th. Tickets available at 415.677.9596 or www.sfplayhouse.org.

Photo credit: Jessica Palopoli



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Steve Murray is a writer for Cabaret Scenes magazine, contributor to ForAllEvents and now BroadwayWorld. He started writing rock reviews for his college newspaper in the 1970’s, produced a va... (read more about this author)


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