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Why Will Arbery's new play at Playwrights Horizons is not preaching to the choir
Playwright Will Arbery was raised in Texas in a Republican Catholic household. His parents were academics but also enthusiastic conservatives -- they even held campaign rallies for right-wing candidates in their home. They are the inspiration for Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Arbery's world-premiere play at Playwrights Horizons, which he says, "I've had inside of me my entire life."
In the show, four college pals (Jeb Kreager, Julia McDermott, Zoë Winters and John Zdrojeski) reunite in Wyoming to celebrate their beloved professor (Tony winner Michele Pawk), who just became the president of their tiny Catholic institution. The friends, all Republicans, trade memories and ethical quandaries: Is Catholicism synonymous with conservatism? Is abortion murder? Can you be friends with a liberal? As the alcohol flows, their arguments intensify.
Although Arbery, 29, admits he now leans left, he wrote Heroes of the Fourth Turning to give voice to people like his parents, who currently live in Wyoming. "It's the kind of conversation I was witness to over and over and over as a child," says the playwright, who earned an MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage from Northwestern University. "There were lots of house parties with passionate intellectual, theological and political debates going on late into the night."
This isn't the first time Arbery has used his family for creative fodder: Plano, which had an acclaimed run at Clubbed Thumb last year, was inspired by the lives of three of his seven sisters. For Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Arbery wanted New York theatrergoers, who are overwhelmingly progressive, to hear an uncensored discussion from across the aisle. "What does a conservative conversation sound like when there's no liberals there, when those defensive walls and diplomatic sidestepping tendencies are absent?" explains Arbery. "Also, I wanted to explode the myth of there being a conservative monolith, to show that the thoughts on that side are very complicated and there's a lot of disagreement."
In one heated exchange, two characters debate whether workers at Planned Parenthood are good people. For director Danya Taymor, it sounded like a fun-house mirror reflection of discussions she's had in her own circles. "I can think of my own version of that, which is, 'If you voted for Donald Trump, you're not a good person,'" she says. "I feel like that's not a helpful way of moving forward."
From the outset of Heroes of the Fourth Turning, it's clear we're in a different world. It opens with one of the characters shooting a deer and dragging it to the backyard firepit where the friends congregate. "In the West, the land is such a dominating experience," says Taymor. "The land is so much bigger and there's so few people. You just have this sense of how much longer it's been there than you, and how much longer it will be there than you. I think if we were inside that house, we would lose that."
There's also a feeling of mystery as some supernatural elements come into play that surprise the characters -- and the audience. Are these manifestations of the characters' Catholicism? Arbery will only say that "I think all my plays are ghost stories in some ways, and this one is no different."
Heroes of the Fourth Turning isn't an exercise in empathy, nor is it about finding common ground. While Arbery and Taymor acknowledge there may be liberals who want nothing to do with conservatives -- even fictional ones on stage -- they don't see self-segregation as a useful artistic exercise. "What's gotten this country in the conundrum we're in is that people on all sides just dismiss each other," says Taymor. "They don't want to engage."
Arbery hopes that in depicting the kinds of people he grew up with, audiences will be able to "understand their thought processes and how they got to the opinions that they hold," he says. "And then beyond empathy, they'll feel love, which I think is a lot more vulnerable, a lot more dangerous and just a harder thing to pull off."
Top image: Jeb Kreager, John Zdrojeski and Zoë Winters in Heroes of the Fourth Turning. Photos by Joan Marcus.