A group of students from a small Catholic college in Wyoming reunite to celebrate the installation of a beloved professor as the school’s new president. During their conversations and debates, ugly truths are revealed and raw emotions come to the forefront. This is Heroes of the Fourth Turning and it is currently playing at BlueBarn Theatre.
Without question, this is one of the deepest plays I’ve ever seen. Will Arbery has an ironclad grip on the current times and asks a lot of questions in this modern morality play. These questions have no easy answers and Arbery does not attempt to answer them. He merely poses the talking points. Arbery asks questions of the true nature of morality; the raging us vs them mentality of society, especially when it comes to political platforms; why people gravitate towards certain collectives; the inability to have civil discourse with differing opinions; the dangers of pride and ambition carried too far, just to name a few. That he does it through a quintet of conservative characters is a particularly clever touch and a good way to get people to walk a mile in another’s shoes as the old saying goes. These powerful questions almost make the audience forget that Arbery leaves a couple of plot threads dangling especially one including a Twilight Zone style twist.
Barry Carman helms this production and his direction is of sterling quality. Carman cuts a fierce pace for this juggernaut production. He intimately understands the beats and momentum of this show as it just builds and builds into a runaway train that threatens to derail until finally applying the brakes at the critical juncture. Carman also has a sense of movement that is second to none. Each and every time his characters move, there is a clear purpose behind it that speaks as loudly as words. Carman has also led his cast to remarkable performances. There isn’t a weak link among them and each performer gets a moment in the spotlight.
As Gina, Joey Hartshorn is the beloved teacher who had a hand in molding the thinking of her 4 students, one of whom is her daughter. Hartshorn brings a definitive intelligence to the character and a certain open-mindedness in her conservatism. She’ll always vote the platform out of principle, but chooses to follow leaders that she believes are best for the country such as Barry Goldwater and Pat Buchanan. She also doesn’t buy into the “gloom and doom” thinking of her protégé who believes that a culture war is brewing. Hartshorn also brings a certain coldness to her interpretation. She clearly doesn’t have a good relationship with her daughter and didn’t seem all that interested in seeing her students again. Not only does she lay into her protégé, Teresa, for not thinking exactly as she does, but she shows some liberal leanings now that she’s running the show at the college.
Suzanne Withem does some exemplary work with her take on Teresa. As Gina’s protégé, Withem’s Teresa drank copious amounts from her fountain of knowledge and seems to aspire to be a better Gina than Gina. Teresa is the most conservative of the group and appears to downright hate liberals with her comments about them being evil due to their adherence to the pro-choice platform. Withem brings an ice-cold selfishness to Teresa who clearly believes herself to be smarter, more moral, and simply better than her classmates. She’s utterly disdainful of Kevin, backhand compliments Emily, has some respect for Justin, and fawns over Gina. Gina’s dismissal of her gives Withem the chance to break Teresa’s chilly exterior and show the scared child hiding behind it.
I’ve always been dazzled by Anna Jordan’s mastery of body language and her turn as Emily further bolsters that amazement. Jordan’s Emily suffers from a nameless disease that leaves her frail and constantly hurting. With her caved in chest and heavy leaning on her cane, Jordan truly appears haggard and ill. Emily is the most open-minded of the group and seems to always look for the truth and the good. It’s hinted that her illness may just be in her head and that she truly suffers from extreme empathy. You can see Jordan visibly start to break as tensions get higher and higher, triggering flashbacks to a distressing incident with a client which might have been the onset of her own illness.
Thomas Gjere is a truly good man as Justin. Justin is definitely the rock of this group. He clearly had a rough past and Gjere makes you believe that he was a hard-edged man who had those edges softened after finding the college and Gina who he says “saved his life”. Justin is a flawed man and Gjere has subtle guilty expressions when he recalls some of his past troubled life. He’s on the search for something greater, but whether he is doing so out of personal growth or fear is left for the viewer to decide.
Michael Judah’s Kevin is definitely the most broken character in the show. Judah does splendid work essaying Kevin’s drunkenness and the truth that almost literally spews from him due to the loosening power of booze. Kevin seems to pine for perfect morality and emotionally flagellates himself whenever he falls short of it. This seems to happen frightfully often due to his utter loneliness which appears to be caused by fear of women (he gets physically sick talking about the Virgin Mary) which, in itself, was caused by his repression of love for Teresa and Emily.
Jason Jamerson has designed an extraordinary set that looks like you are genuinely outside in a wooded area with its long grass, trees, bushes, and stumps with the back of Justin’s house butting up against it. I swear I could almost feel the cool breeze blowing in from a nearby river. Homero Vela’s lights perfectly emulate a starlit night, but the flip side of being true to the setting meant the faint light made it hard to see the actors’ faces and expressions when they were in darker parts of the stage. That leads to an interesting conundrum and I’ll be honest in admitting I’m not sure how to get the best of both worlds. Bill Kirby’s sounds make for an ambient night and, at points, something a little more terrifying and jumpy. Jocelyn Reed’s costumes helped to flesh out the characters from the business pantsuit of Gina to the outdoorsy clothes of Justin, the hoodie of the frail Emily, the stiff, professional clothes of Kevin, and the practical clothes of Teresa.
Buckle yourself in for a challenging night of theatre, but there is a powerful kernel of hope in this show in that it may encourage people to talk to each other instead of at each other.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning runs at BlueBarn Theatre through October 24. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm with the exception of a 6pm show on October 17. Tickets cost $35 and can be purchased by calling 402-345-1576 or visiting www.bluebarn.org. Due to mature themes and language, this show is not suitable for children. BlueBarn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.