Review: HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING at Studio Theatre

Anyone who has a questioning mind and heart will be rewarded by this indelible production.

By: Sep. 29, 2022
Review: HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING at Studio Theatre
L-R Laura C. Harris and Louis Reyes McWilliams in
Studio Theatre's production of Heroes of the Fourth Turning.
Photo by Margot Schulman.

The "awful grace of God" (from Aeschylus----prominently displayed on Robert F. Kennedy's grave) has been a line I all too well understand as a Catholic---in the current and intellectually thrilling production of Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Aeschylus is more than apt. These characters are given grace in circumstances that often resemble "The Dark Night of the Soul" (St. John of the Cross). The Studio Theatre is presenting a play that grabs hold of the mind and heart with a compelling dramatic throughline for all those who have thought about the role of the sacred in a secular society.

The characters in playwright Will Arbery's astonishing play (nothing in the play seems preordained and all is dramatically revelatory) are in a bit of a spiritual quandary as the contradictions of their personal lives and religious beliefs play out in the academic, social, cultural, and political pressure points of the times they live in. Mr. Arbery focuses on a group of conservative Catholics who meet in 2017 in their friend's backyard after attending a reunion at their small Catholic liberal arts college.

Though the subject matter is pointed ---there is no didacticism and no easy answers as the play's material is presented in a natural yet "no -holds barred" fashion. The characters here are truly Catholic for much of the play has them "confessing" their qualms, misgivings and, even, the emotional and mental pain they are in. Holding on to their respective relationships with each other and trying to be authentically Catholic is a spiritual and personal challenge to these characters who are all in search of meaning in their lives.

The title of this multi-layered play is inspired by the Strauss-Howe generational theory, devised by William Strauss and Neil Howe, which describes a theorized recurring generation cycle in American history and Western history. The word "hero" used here refers to the terminology conceived for the heroic archetype that is drawn to show a generation that grew up in a time of individual pragmatism, self-reliance, and laissez-faire.

However, the word "hero" could also be construed as somewhat ironic as the characters assembled here are indeed cerebral and faith driven but, concurrently, very lonely, somewhat anxious and drained by various degrees of emotional pain. (A deer is shot at the beginning of the play, and this seemed to be a symbolic portent).

Director Sivan Battat keeps the characters reflecting and interacting under almost constant introspective moods as they move around the stage space mulling their thoughts and debating their views with continual fervor and, often, contradictions. Director Battat also evokes a true ensemble feel throughout the proceedings.

Though there is mystery in the play and enticing questions ---the mood and the writing is often very direct and much to the point. The frankness of these characters covers topics from Roe vs. Wade, trans rights, democracy, Trump, and references to Flannery O'Connor, Wordsworth, and Gerard Manley Hopkins amongst several others. (In a way, the play reminds me a bit of Michael Weller's play Moonchildren -except for the fact that this play is written from a conservative purview).

Much of the writing is conveyed in such a style that the audience can draw their own conclusions from the material----no easy answers are attempted or given by playwright Arbery. A cacophonous noise -ostensibly from a generator in need of repair ---occurs whenever the debates and emotional contradictions of the characters come to the fore (credit to Sound designer/composer Sinan Refik Zafar).

Gregory Connors (Justin) delivers a performance of quiet rectitude that befits the character he is playing. A level of subtle anxiety is bubbling underneath his stolid veneer.

Louis Reyes McWilliams portrays Kevin as an individual fighting his demons of addiction and sensory overload with an appropriately jarring physicality. As he sits in a curved-shouldered slouch and stands with a contorted angularity, Mr. McWilliams' interior pain is mirrored in the externals.

Sophia Lillis as Emily portrays a character who is totally immersed in her physical pain yet still has the compassion to listen very intently to the other people in her life---Ms. Lillis conveys this quality well. Ms. Lillis' long monologue near the end of the play is a multi-layered howl of anguish and despair that grabbed me by the gut but defies easy categorization.

Laura C. Harris beautifully portrayed the intellectually precocious character of Teresa with authoritative and manipulative panache.

Naomi Jacobson embodied the character of the pragmatic Gina with skill and finesse.

Scenic design by Yu Shibagaki is haunting in its straightforward clean lines and natural integration with the story elements. Ms. Shibagaki creates a backdrop of a rural house with trees that enhanced the ambience of the play without detracting from the dramatic narrative. A firepit, gravel and earth add to the impact. Fog and mist effects added to the atmosphere.

Lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker is compelling and suggestive without being obtrusive.

Costume design by Debra Kim Sivigny is exemplary.

The culture wars are alive and well in this challenging production. Anyone who has a questioning mind and heart will be rewarded by this indelible production. Do not miss Studio Theatre's production of Heroes of the Fourth Turning.

Running Time: Two Hours and fifteen minutes with no intermission

Heroes of the Fourth Turning runs through October 23, 2022 at the Studio Theatre located at 1501 14th Street, Washington, DC 20005.