Savannah Irish, Tyler Costigan and Nick Schroeder in “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” at Mad Horse Theatre. Photos by Jennifer Battis Photography

A respected playwright recently observed that theater should be “a conversation, not a lecture.” The latest play presented by Mad Horse Theatre may blur that distinction a little. There’s plenty of both conversation and lecturing by the troubled characters in Will Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” a longish but compelling play that takes us directly into some of the thorny disagreements within the religious right about the culture wars of recent years.

The award-winning play, in its Maine premiere, offers much to think about in its two hours and 15 minutes with no intermission. First produced in 2019, “Heroes” seems less interested in taking sides in its visit to a gathering of four old friends, now in their late 20s and 30s, who have returned to Wyoming to celebrate the new president of an ultra-conservative Catholic college. But the play, of course, has subtle points to make about these recognizable characters and their controversial views.

The friends’ booze-fueled, after-hours conversations held outside a cabin (set by Steve Lupien) weave personal revelations with opinions fed by the assertions of familiar conservative media figures and sketchy academics who theorize about the cycles of history (hence the play’s title). Riffs on abortion, race, gender, religion, diversity and inclusion fly by as the still youthful foursome straddle the line between semi-rational discourse and intense, us-versus-them alarmism.
Mad Horse company members or alumni make up the bulk of the Christopher Price-directed cast. Nick Schroeder plays Justin, a sort of rustic, strong silent type, respected though gently mocked by the more verbose others. His inner turmoil takes most of the length of the play to be fully revealed.

Allison McCall as Emily in “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.”

At the other extreme, Savannah Irish’s Teresa is one who has lived in the big city and knows the ways of her left-wing adversaries who, she insists, are intent on murdering babies and canceling all traditional values. Her fiery speeches take on the more nuanced views of those such as Emily, played by Allison McCall. McCall’s emotionally and physically fragile character believes there are good people among those who the smirking Teresa abhors.

Guest actor Tyler Costigan plays the alternately annoying and amusing sad sack Kevin who flips from offense to defense as his probing questions are thrown back at him by the others. Incoming college president Gina, given gravitas by local theater veteran Christine Marshall’s portrayal, surprisingly believes Kevin may be close to realizing important insights about life while appearing to be the most dissolute of the group.

Gina’s relatively late appearance in the play adds a hint of mature wisdom for the group members who have been tying themselves up in very troubling verbal knots all evening. Gina suggests that people need to “calm down” and move beyond “tribal instincts.”

This well-written, well-produced and well-acted play provides much to think about for audiences, even if, like the characters at the close of the play, they may feel a little exhausted as they file out of the intimate Mad Horse theater space.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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