Will Arbery’s new play, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, is essentially about empathy. Two nights before the 2017 solar eclipse and five days after the murder of Heather Heyer, four young conservative Catholics, all graduates of the rigorous Transfiguration College of Wyoming, engage in a wide-ranging, late-night conversation that covers everything from Donald Trump to BoJack Horseman. Inheritors of a prestigious education, the group grapples with their faith, their politics, and the future of a movement that is now irretrievably identified with a serial predator.
About halfway through the play, Emily (Julia McDermott), the wheelchair-bound daughter of both the incoming and outgoing presidents of the college, suggests that while her friend who works for Planned Parenthood is engaged in murder, she is nonetheless a good person. When Emily asks for “a bigger dose of empathy” from her friends, the radical Teresa (Zoë Winters) sees an opportunity to pounce: “Empathize with someone and suddenly you’re erasing the boundaries of your own conscience, suddenly you’re living under the tyranny of their desires.” For Teresa, empathy is a denial of the self. The remainder of the cast fills out the middle ground, including Kevin (John Zdrojeski), who asks why he cannot engage with “the hedonists,” and Justin (Jeb Kreager), whose tenderness and generosity with Emily is belied by his belief that “proximity to LGBT is a threat to Christian families.” It is notable that he does not add “people” to “LGBT” and instead uses the acronym as if it were a proper noun.
Outside the world of the play, of course, the production is itself an exercise in empathy. We, a majority liberal audience, are being asked to sit—and to sit silently—with conservative thinkers for two hours unbroken by an intermission. There is no left-wing surrogate in Heroes of the Fourth Turning, no stern lecture to counter the narrative, for example, that abortion is genocide. And unlike the conservative bogeyman of our imagination, these young men and women are sincere and intellectually engaged, as likely to quote Hannah Arendt as Barry Goldwater.
Moreover, the cost of continued isolation is ever-apparent. As the four huddle around a fire, the remainder of the stage is set in a darkness that is complemented by ominous ambient noises and an occasional, deafening sound that Justin unconvincingly blames on his generator. Toward the end of the play, we hear struggle and chaos offstage but are offered no explanation. Now, there is no contemporary playwright who is better at depicting dread, or the uneasy feeling that precedes terror. Heroes of the Fourth Turning, like Plano before it, is no exception. For Arbery, the world outside is encroaching on homogeneous spaces like Transfiguration College. They risk ignoring us at their own peril—but so too do we them.