By John Lyle Belden
What if you were in an echo chamber, and the voice coming back questioned you? Or said something else entirely?
Welcome to the edge of a small town in the west-central part of Wyoming, home of cowboys and a Catholic college. It’s Trump country – especially in August 2017, with conservatives still grateful they narrowly avoided a Hillary Clinton presidency and perhaps realizing that buffoonery was about all they would get from the President they elected.
In the Pulitzer-nominated drama “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” by Will Arbery, presented by American Lives Theatre, you will find no “liberals,” yet these four young men and women gathering seven years after graduation from the college, celebrating their mentor becoming its president, aren’t entirely of the same mind.
The atmosphere is ominous: Could it be that the infamous Charlottesville riot was just days ago? Or that this land where the Plains meets the Rockies will soon be in the totality of a solar eclipse? Or is it something about the deer that Justin (Tyler Lyons) shot, or that unnatural noise in his shed? His guests – Teresa (Morgan Morton), who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and admires then-White House advisor Steve Bannon; Kevin (Taylor Cox), an apparent alcoholic working for a Catholic publisher in Oklahoma; and Emily (Devan Mathias), who lives with chronic pain and in the shadow of her mother, Dr. Gina Presson (Gigi Jennewein), whom they have gathered to honor – start to have what Kevin likes to call “big conversations.”
Teresa is fascinated by the controversial 1997 book, “The Fourth Turning,” by social scientists William Strauss and Neil Howe, and treats it like prophesy, asserting the “Turning,” a time of upheaval, is upon them. She calls it an imminent “war,” and Justin, a Marine veteran, agrees, seeing the conflict not as spiritual, cultural or rhetorical, but armed revolution. Emily, who battles mental and physical torment with an exceptionally upbeat outlook – “pain and grace,” she calls it – doesn’t want to hear any of it. Kevin, feeling uncertain about everything, wants to delve further. To change the topic, Justin tells of a children’s-book story he is working on, “The Grateful Acre,” about the stoic optimism of a plot of land.
Eventually Gina arrives, and when prodded for her thoughts, adds her perspective to the party.
In the words of Arbery, with the guidance of director Andrew Kramer, we get excellent insight on what people on the political right are thinking and why. Any notes from the other side of the spectrum come from experiences with others, as bits of devil’s advocacy, or in warnings from Teresa that “this is what they say about us.” The militant and reactionary perspectives dash against the rocks of Gina’s intellectual conservatism (think Bannon vs. George Will), but even her logic frays at the edges.
Morton and Lyons are solid as characters who stick to their guns (one figuratively, the other literally). Jennewein’s stalwart academic reminds me now much I miss the relatively measured stance of the late Bill Buckley Jr.
Mathias nimbly gives us a necessarily complex character, too often finding herself in the middle of things with no real control. Emily also has a life experience that impacts her conservative Catholic beliefs, a thing that won’t reconcile easily.
“It’s hard to be the ‘Holy Fool,’” Kevin says, but Cox gives us a master class in embodying the archetype. Like the Fool who stood by King Lear in a storm, his Kevin is all over the place both in dialogue and movement, ever probing for the veritas his vino won’t provide. Ridicule, insult or pity him – as others do – but his jagged queries are worthy of answers.
This play was written and first staged in 2019, yet instead of feeling dated its contents become more profound in the light of what would happen in America over the next three years. One can argue if the Pandemic is the Fourth Turning, or if events have damaged the presumptions of Strauss and Howe’s work, but what’s portrayed are what people did (and do) think and feel.
Regardless of your place on the political spectrum, this is a worthy challenge to experience, leavened with a few situational laughs and a curious bit of supernatural edge. Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28, at the Basile IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at AmericanLivesTheatre.org or IndyFringe.org.