SF Playhouse’s ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning’ empathetically presents troubling political realities

photo of a production
Jessica Palopo/Courtesy

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“Heroes of the Fourth Turning” begins with silence; stillness hangs in the air of the San Francisco Playhouse until it is interrupted by the bang of a gunshot, causing the audience to jump from their seats. These initial moments set the scene for the foreboding atmosphere of the play’s runtime. Directed by Bill English, Will Arbery’s Pulitzer Prize finalist “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” runs until Mar. 5 and sheds light on the complexities and discord present within the American religious right.

Taking place a week after the 2017 Charlottesville riot and two days before a solar eclipse in Wyoming, “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” follows four conservative millennials as a party connected to their Catholic alma mater dissolves into a night of debate, lament and existential crisis. Since the original production of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” premiered in 2019, a polarizing pandemic and the 2021 capital riots have proven Arbery’s story to be as relevant as ever. 

SF Playhouse serves as a fitting, intimate setting for the visceral and fraught conversations explored onstage. A minimal set design featuring open air and a fire pit allows the actors to interact with rural Wyoming, which becomes a character in itself — the approaching eclipse and a mysterious periodic screeching sound bring the setting to life, suggesting that even nature is joining in on the isolation that the characters feel in regards to their political and religious views. 

The play falls short when theoretical debate, such as familiar abortion arguments audiences could easily consume just by opening Twitter, takes the front seat, inviting audiences to guffaw at recognizable rhetorical patterns rather than gleaning anything new. Luckily, the acting performances provide much-needed nuance and empathy to the play’s characters.

On the surface, Josh Schell’s Kevin appears to be a shell of a man filled with Catholic guilt and ennui, leading the humor of the show with drunken antics and his cries of desire for  a girlfriend. Schell’s performance is highly physical — at one point involving projectile vomit — but never gratuitous, disarming the audience when his humorous self-pity peels back to reveal serious, painful contention. “You hate me for how weak I am!” he screams near the play’s climax, laying bare the ways toxic pressures of conventional masculinity lead to emotional damage.

Teresa, portrayed masterfully by Ash Malloy, could easily come off as sterile — a caricature of far-right web reactionaries. She combatively quotes Steve Bannon in her blazer, calls Kevin a “soy boy” and confronts every character with the prospect of a looming ideological war. Malloy duels Susi Damilano as Gina, new president of the Catholic college and horrified mentor of Teresa, with an energy that brings new stakes to the latter half of the play.

Wera Von Wulfen centers the emotion of the play and challenges stereotypes as Emily — a young woman who lives with an unnamed disability and tries to see the best in every person, smiling through her chronic pain. “You’re so good,” she constantly repeats. The vulnerable instability Von Wulfen imparts to Emily suggests that this persistent optimism shields something dark. 

There’s a peculiar meta aspect to the performance; at times, the audience seems to relish in these characters’ pain and folly in a voyeuristic manner. It is unclear whether audiences will walk away from “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” with a self-congratulating pat on the back, or whether they will be seriously challenged by the dialogue’s revelations. 

“Heroes of the Fourth Turning” presents many questions with few answers. Why do we associate suffering with virtue? “I love pain. We love pain,” Emily repeats in the final minutes of the play. Who are we talking about when we say “we?” What does our future look like? Is there, as Teresa so adamantly believes, a war ahead of us? The play does not offer a simple solution to these issues. Audiences and characters are instead left to grapple with the hypocrisy and human weakness presented in the script — issues that continue to haunt this country after the curtains have closed.

Contact Sarena Kuhn at [email protected].