Conservative Christian Politics As Judgment-Free Thrilling Theater

Jay Sullivan and Shanae'a Moore in Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Rec Room Arts.
Jay Sullivan and Shanae'a Moore in Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Rec Room Arts. Photo by Tasha Gorel
Rec Room Arts is known to produce some of the riskiest plays in Houston. Zombie Apocalypse, an adopted boy who believes he's a wolf, Dionysus reimagined as a butch lesbian permaculture gardener. Not exactly characters and plotlines meant for the masses.

But with Heroes of the Fourth Turning (Sophia Watt directing at the top of her game), Rec Room may be staging its most surprising play yet. Not because the show hits some new level of wokeness or subversion, but precisely the opposite.

Conservative, white, Catholic intellectuals. These are the characters we’re asked to consider in Will Arbery’s riveting Pulitzer Prize finalist play. They’re graduates of (or connected to) a staunchly Catholic college in rural Wyoming. The group together again back on campus (in 2017) to celebrate their favorite professor’s promotion to college president.

But we meet them after the ceremonies are over, drinking, debating, quoting more right-wing thinkers than you thought existed and catching up at their friend’s cabin in the seemingly endless woods (a haunting masterpiece of design by Stefan Azizi)

Justin (Jay Sullivan) is the elder of the bunch in his late 30’s. It’s his cabin and he embodies the rural soft-spoken outdoorsman trope perfectly. Clad in jeans and plaid, heavily bearded, gun at the ready, kind to his friends, he seems sure of himself in the world.

But watch as his hand trembles trying to gut a recently killed deer. Listen to his unsubstantiated certainty that Christians need to keep their heads down, mingle with only their kind or risk being infected by the LGBT amoral population. Watch as he eventually makes personal decisions that seem like fleeing instead of fighting for his faith.

Polar opposite of Justin's calm is Kevin's antsy neurosis. Full of questions and contradictions without one ounce of cool is Kevin (Kyle Clark), seemingly ready to implode from anxiety.

How is it that he works for a Catholic textbook company but then goes home to watch porn and masturbate all evening? Why does being Catholic necessitate being conservative? What if he experiences the world outside his faith and actually likes it? Why can’t he just get a girlfriend who will take care of him? Most disturbingly, what if he finally picks up a gun, looks down the barrel and shoots? Or decides to go shoot everyone who doesn’t have the same faith/political beliefs he does?

Right-wing newsletter writer Teresa (Shannon Uphold) is Steve Bannon in a dress. Or more precisely Bannon in a well-tailored yet feminine pantsuit, styled for a Brooklyn address. Like Bannon, she believes in the Heroes of the Fourth Turning theory which states war is coming and the strong and faithful will rise out of chaos to oust the seditious, genderless, baby-murdering, weak lefties, people of color and claim victory.

There is no more room or time for shame on our side, Teresa tells her friends. It only slows us down. She’s like the anti-Brene Brown, but all that bravado and cruel tongue must be a bandage covering some kind of hurt or insecurity, right?

Then there's Emily (Shanae'a Moore, daughter of the newly anointed professor), who didn't attend the college herself but is well-known to the group. Burdened with some sort of mystery illness that inflicts constant indistinct pain, Emily is perhaps the most religious of the bunch, espousing the notion of grace in pain and feeling gratitude for the afflictions God has given her.

But Emily is also inflicted with empathy, to the horror of her friends. Her pro-life stance doesn’t stop friendships with Planned Parenthood workers. The problem as she sees it are the men who put women in the awful position of having to make a choice they sometimes must make.

I just want everyone to love each other, Emily says. But does she love herself? And what does she do with the painful knowledge that universal love based in faith will never happen, never mind the kind of personal love she so desires?

The final character to arrive is Gina (Susan Koozin) Emily’s mother/new College president. It’s with her arrival that the conservative cultures really clash. Gina is old school. There is no race grievance. There is no individual axe to grind. These are products of the population being misled and stirred up by a small group of secular troublemakers.

War is not coming. The Supreme Court is finally on their side (thanks to Trump who she detests but voted for anyway). Faith, motherhood and patience are the way forward.

Arbery (raised by conservative Catholics) has given us five distinct nuances of the Christian right and allows us to perch like flies on the wall as they debate, argue and question how to achieve a successful path forward.

We may not like what we hear. It may be wildly offensive. But good theater shows us to ourselves and like it or not, this is a large part of America.

However, the brilliance in the show isn't what Arbery shows us, rather it's what he leaves out.

This is not a ‘get to know/understand the right' kind of play. There will be no diagnosis, excavation or tut-tutting. We aren't set up to like or dislike these folks and we aren’t here to discuss the headlines of the moment. Instead, Arbery gives us the characters as they are in all their philosophical struggles, subtleties, and occasional sameness. In their safe space doing their thing without derision.

It’s refreshing and fascinating. Refreshing not to be told how to feel and fascinating to take in facets of ring-wing ideology and personalities that many of us have no or little access to.
Not that this is an easy go.

At two-plus hours with no intermission, Heroes of the Fourth Turning feels like an assault. The intolerance the anger, the distrust, the fear, the pain…oh the pain that each character suffers from silently or otherwise is crushing. There are some good laughs along the way, but this is a heavy show at its heart and it is impossible to process it all immediately. Frankly hard to review without several days to ponder.

Arbery knows how he’s affecting us. He even uses the scream of a generator malfunctioning several times during the play to warn us of the onslaught onstage and signal a larger metaphoric foreboding.

If ever there was a cast up for this daunting task, it’s these performers. In what surely is one of the most intense ensemble efforts we’ve seen in Houston in recent memory, these actors steal spotlights so many times it becomes dizzying.

Sullivan is pitch perfect as the steady, dependable hand. A recitation of an original children’s story about a grateful acre makes us ache for the assuredness of simple belief. Clark gets many deserved laughs with his relentless stream of anxious jerky, awkwardness that eventually skews dark and quite upsetting.

Uphold is terrifying as a whip-smart sharp-tongue bully who could talk circles around anyone not seeing things her way. Whether it’s belittling her friends or going head-to-head with her former professor, she is a cannonball on stage.

Koozin’s entitled/let me tell you, dear delivery grounds the whirlwind on stage with her trademark take charge sass.

Finally, Moore’s performance, wonderful throughout, so surprises us in the end that it’s best not to spoil the abundance she has in store for us.

I do wonder what someone from the Houston Christian right would think of the show. Would Arbery’s words/characters feel true and representative? Would they feel judged? Now that would be a review I’d like to read/hear. Do pass it along if you encounter, would you please.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning continues through October 28 at Rec Room Arts, 100 Jackson. For more information,  visit $5 - $40
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman