It’s the middle of Wyoming, with a midnight sky so stunning the characters just lie back and look. That’s the world of Heroes of the Fourth Turning by Will Arbery. This Wilma Theater presentation is directed by cofounder and co-artistic director Blanka Zizka and has just been extended for an additional week to run online through Dec. 20.. Created and filmed in the Poconos in a quarantine bubble, it is demanding, lacerating, and full of our moment.
Heroes was a Pulitzer finalist and won the Obie Award and Drama Desk Critics Circle Award this year. It involves intelligent, articulate people stripped to the nub. Much is at stake in a series of explosive encounters.
Four graduates of Transfiguration College of Wyoming, a conservative Catholic institution, gather to celebrate Gina, teacher and mentor, just inducted as college president. Justin, now equestrian instructor at the school, hosts the party, and the four friends gravitate to the backyard (eloquent set by Matt Saunders). Gina is late, not showing up until the last, shattering hour.
At once we’re thrown into the turmoil of being conservative, Catholic, and a born leader, wanting to make a difference in a world where “the other side” has the edge.
Justin (played with awesome restraint by Jered McLenigan) is the agrarian, tending his horses and finding “nothing to love” in the world. Kevin (Justin Jain, splendid in an athletic role) isn’t handling anything well. Drunk, self-pitying, torn with doubt — “Something needs to change in me … I’m the worst, I’m the worst, I’m the worst” — he is also the holy fool, including an epic vomiting scene.
Compelling as the men are, the women drive the play. A slow-wasting disease puts Emily (Gina’s daughter) in terrible pain every moment. Emily’s very existence challenges the rest to care (or fail to care). Campbell O’Hare avoids the traps in such a role; her performance prompts compassion rather than pity.
But the two trains running head-on are Sarah Gliko as Teresa and Mary Elizabeth Scallen as Gina.
Teresa lives in Park Slope these days, and “I feel the forces of heroic war when I walk outside, which I love.” A Pat Buchanan/Steve Bannon conservative for whom modern life is a war for the world’s soul, she values strength and despises “empathy addicts” and “gooey feelings.” Gliko, tremendous, really sparks when she declares, “We need to embrace our American identity as the representative of Christ on the globe.”
When Gina (steady, assured Scallen) arrives, it’s a five-way reckoning with much wreckage. Teresa faces off with her, championing an aggressive, symbolically violent Catholic heroism Gina can’t accept. No one is right, no one is wrong. Everyone hurts. Emily’s closing outburst is a shower of agony and love.
Heroes won’t be to everyone’s taste. There’s much talk about “fourth turning” historical theory and the theological “scandal of the particular,” but Arbery makes it sing.
Director of photography Jorge Cousineau gives the show texture and movement. Movielike, this production has little in the way of breaks — except for one startling stage device. But tension is sustained, and you care. In taking on so much so well, the Wilma’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning is little short of heroic.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning
Online performance by the Wilma Theater, through Dec. 13. Tickets: $37 (senior tickets $34). Information: 215-546-7824 or wilmatheater.org.