(Cameron Woodhead’s article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3/31/22; Photo: Old tensions surface in this rare drama. CREDIT:JODIE HUTCHINSON.)     

Heroes of the Fourth Turning ★★★★
Red Stitch, until April 10

Why do we live in such politically polarised times? The echo chambers of social media? Tribal identity politics on both sides of the fence? What about theatre? It’s no secret the art form skews to the political left. The lion’s share of vibrant, accomplished drama is filtered through a socially progressive lens … and so is the bulk of the strident, unaccomplished stuff that simply preaches to the converted.

Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a rare bird in the theatre world – a play that lets actors loose on fully fleshed-out characters of a conservative bent, daring audiences to imagine and to grapple with their perspectives and experiences.

In Wyoming, a group of young conservative Christians gathers to get drunk at a house party. They’ve returned to celebrate Gina (Margaret Mills), who’s been appointed president of their alma mater, but old tensions surface during their reunion.

Personal struggles become political as they share encounters with mainstream, socially progressive culture, and erupt into argument over glaring contradictions between their religious convictions and the belligerent rhetoric of Trumpism.

The play is a necessary complement (and corrective) to Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels, which offered a fly-on-the-wall view of a liberal household in upstate New York. That realist trilogy premiered during the 2016 presidential election and its characters used Hillary Clinton’s trick of failing to mention Trump by name – not once over nine hours – condemning it to being an instant museum piece. 

Heroes of the Fourth Turning doesn’t make that mistake. These young Catholics might hold views you find objectionable or confronting – they’re all ardent pro-lifers, for instance – but they’re hyperaware of the political and culture wars around them. They wrestle with opposing ideas and engage in searching, sometimes compulsive debate among themselves.

What makes it so riveting to watch isn’t just the rigour and rhetorical allure of the argumentation, it’s that the characters are so nuanced, their personalities so recognisable and richly drawn.

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