Theatre is often accused of confirming people’s biases and US theatre’s bias is viewed – not necessarily inaccurately – as being left-leaning and liberal. That’s one of many reasons that Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, currently in its world premiere at New York’s Playwrights Horizons, is provoking so much attention.
Heroes asks the audience to spend several hours in the company of four young people reuniting to celebrate the installation of their mentor, and in one case mother, as president of the Catholic Transfiguration Bible College in a remote location in Wyoming.
The characters are all conservative, steeped in politics by way of theology and all in a constant state of contemplating the condition of their souls. They are not presented as one-dimensional, or satirised, save perhaps for the Steve Bannon acolyte among them, although even she has doubts and fears.
In a programme note, Arbery lays bare the fact that he was raised in such a community and that his father is the president of a similar university. As a child and teenager, he was witness to late-night debates similar to those that fuel the play. But unlike so many plays by younger playwrights reflecting upon their upbringing, Arbery is examining his experience, not explicitly rebelling against it. In a recent interview, the author says that his parents both saw and loved the play, which would seem impossible had it been a frontal attack on their beliefs.
That Heroes is such a unicorn in the theatrical garden is unfortunate, since it is an exemplar of how theatre can show us people and lives radically different from us and our own. We need not adopt or endorse characters’ beliefs in order to learn something about people unlike those we encounter daily.
There have been overt attempts to produce works and festivals that wear their conservatism or Republican politics as a brand, but they have succeeded more as political statements than artistic ones. Heroes’ success is in part due to the fact that it is a play first and foremost, not a tract.
Indeed, after seeing Heroes on Sunday night, I was desperate to read the script, to explore what I missed. Had there been a post-performance discussion with the playwright, or with Catholic theologians, I would have stayed for hours. Having been given a window into this world, I wanted to know even more about it, about the theology behind it and how that gives rise to support for the current president and for anti-LGBT+ sentiment. I had been given a chance to learn something in a way I don’t always encounter in the theatre.
There are certainly playwrights who are evidently much smarter and more knowledgeable than me – Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, and Tony Kushner, to name three. But Heroes exists among thinking vastly different from almost any in my own experience, save for a childhood friend who was born again in college, attended a Protestant evangelical seminary, and spent a decade as a missionary in Africa. Just as he and I discuss the world through differing viewpoints, Heroes seemed the theatrical equivalent.
Heroes is not a play without theatrical antecedents. I am reminded of my befuddlement over Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice on first viewing until members of the cast explained how it was even more rooted in Catholic liturgy than its religious characters would suggest.
At the same time, I found the play to share both techniques and themes with the work of Annie Baker, for whom I have unstinting praise. I was also put in mind of Alexis Zegerman’s Holy Sh!t and its dissection of religious hypocrisy in the name of gaming the system for one’s children, but without ever condemning its characters.
It will be interesting to see what the future life of Heroes will be and how it will be received in other cities and towns, as well as whether it opens a door for further explorations of this kind. As much as I love Christopher Durang’s religious lampoons Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Laughing Wild, and as much as my personal beliefs may align with those of our late-night TV comedians, I’m fully prepared for more discussions about the roots of faith, observance, and conservatism, stopping short of didactic endorsements.
I won’t change my beliefs (I have actually grown more liberal as I’ve aged, in contrast to the usual path in the reverse), but I’m wide open to good theatre that doesn’t simply tell me what I want to hear.
Anna Deavere Smith’s one-person show Fires in the Mirror, created from Smith’s interviews in the Brooklyn community of Crown Heights following the deaths of a black child and a Jewish man in 1991, returns to New York as part of Smith’s residency at Signature Theatre. But while Smith played all the roles originally, this new production, directed by Saheem Ali, features Michael Benjamin Washington. It opens on Monday.