I saw Jon Robin Baitz’s startlingly timely Vicuña during election week 2016 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and staggered into the lobby afterwards, too traumatized to stay for the talkback. In Vicuña, a real estate mogul turned presidential candidate orders a custom-made suit for his final debate. The haberdasher’s basement location was ideal for someone with, shall we say, strong roots in the underworld (and not the RICO type).
I’m impressed by playwrights who can capture the zeitgeist, who write quickly and deftly and deeply enough to be of the moment in a meaningful way. Will Arbery pulled it off in 2019, with Heroes of the Fourth Turning, now getting its Los Angeles premiere from Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre. But while Baitz was predictive, Arbery is summative. This powerful play retains its of-the-moment ability to shock, as well as capture and advance perception. After all, Steve Bannon hasn’t gone away.
While Baitz parsed a sole individual, Arbery analyzes an entire political group, the Christian right. It’s compelling and terrifying, empathic and cautionary. The actors of Rogue Machine go all in as gun-loving, Jesus-quoting true believers affiliated with Transfiguration College of Wyoming. Any kind of weakness, especially doubt about the teachings that shaped them, is heckled and condemned.
When the play opens, in August 2017, a group is gathering near the college, at the cabin of Justin (Stephen Tyler Howell), a veteran who’s several years older than the three alumni who join him. Teresa (Evangeline Edwards) is the high achiever, bringing the righteousness to Brooklyn. Kevin (Samuel Garnett) is the lost soul, self-flagellating and in general harshing the vibe. Emily (Emily James) is vulnerable in another way, weakened from a disease she describes as “a bug eating my brain.”
Director Guillermo Cienfuegos guides these four as they deliver beautifully crafted paragraphs of political theory and religious fervor. Garnett in particular is terrifying in his dance at the edge. We see them as human beings, guided by and occasionally chafing at, their indoctrination.
Emily’s mother Gina (Roxanne Hart, a founding member of Rogue Machine) is being sworn in as the new president of Transfiguration—the impetus for the gathering. She enters late in the proceedings, after her inauguration, and immediately alters the energy. Hart is a powerful presence and nothing is the same after her pronouncements.
The Matrix Theatre’s stage is long and wide, at the same level as the front row. Rogue Machine always uses the space adeptly, in this case with a cabin and clearing but also a dark and menacing forest, occasionally riven with the gunshots of hunters. Scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, as well as lighting and sound designers Dan Weingarten and Christopher Moscatiello, have created the perfect setting for the unsettling proceedings.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning runs through October 2, 2023 at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. Show times are 8:00pm Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays, and 3:00pm Sundays (no performances September 10, 11). Tickets are available here, and include pay-what-you-want options, including for WGA and SAG members, on August 27-28 and September 1.