Did this Will Arbery play about young religious conservatives predict Jan. 6?

Los Angeles, CA - August 16: Playwright Will Arbery, whose play "Heroes of the Fourth Turning," a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is having its premiere in Los Angeles courtesy of Rogue Machine Theatre at the Matrix, and here he poses for a portrait at the Matrix on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. Arbery also worked on the writing staff for the last season of "Succession." (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
Playwright Will Arbery, whose play "Heroes of the Fourth Turning," a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is having its Southern California premiere courtesy of Rogue Machine Theatre at the Matrix. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

“Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” Will Arbery’s critically heralded drama that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2020, does something rare in the American theater. It turns the stage over to young religious conservatives, whose ideologies and articles of faith are presented without apology or indictment.

When the work premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 2019, audiences and critics seemed grateful for the opportunity to eavesdrop on the reunion of four friends who have gathered to celebrate the inauguration of a new president of Transfiguration College, a conservative Catholic institution in Wyoming that has shaped who they are today. In the still early days of Donald Trump's divisive presidency, when party lines are hardening and public dialogue is coarsening, these late-night stragglers hash out around a fire pit their shifting political and religious priorities.

So much of conservative discourse these days seems bent on “owning the libs.” "Heroes" invites liberal theatergoers to listen to the other side reflect on the polarized historical moment when supposedly out of the enemy's earshot. The characters hardly form a monolith. They vary in disposition as well as ideological conviction, but all would be considered hardliners. Arbery denies progressive audiences a surrogate and then compounds that challenge by asking them to witness the vexing complexity of the characters as they bare their troubled souls.

Re-encountering the play at the Matrix Theatre, where Rogue Machine is presenting the Southern California premiere, I am struck by how prophetic it seems. Set in Western Wyoming on Aug. 19, 2017, one week after the Charlottesville riot and two days before the solar eclipse that became known as “the Great American Eclipse,” "Heroes" predates the Jan. 6 insurrection and the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe vs. Wade yet now seems to anticipate both of these watershed events.

A headshot of a man wearing glasses.
Playwright Will Arbery, whose play "Heroes of the Fourth Turning," a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is having its Southern California premiere courtesy of Rogue Machine Theatre at the Matrix. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Sitting in a studio upstairs at the Matrix Theatre when rehearsals were still underway, Arbery said that the decision to situate the play at a precise point in time freed him from making revisions that might be seen as a “a bid for relevance.” His mission was to focus on the “human and spiritual journey” of his characters while being as accurate as he could to the terms of their debate.

“When the play was first going up and we were doing auditions in the spring of 2019, I hadn't actually locked down a specific time for when the play was taking place yet,” he said. “I was going back and forth, wondering if I should change things based on current events, because so much history was happening so rapidly every day. And then I remembered that solar eclipse that was in August 2017, right after the Charlottesville riot. And it just felt like this moment when the whole country was looking at the same beautiful, terrifying thing.”

One topic the characters keep returning to is the imminent battle between the secular left and the religious right for the soul of Western civilization. The militancy of this rhetoric might seem to foreshadow the violent eruption of Jan. 6, but Arbery denies he had this in sights.

“The reason that I have all that language in my play about the coming war is because this was an issue that Steve Bannon talked about a lot and people on the right were obsessed with," he said. "I remember looking at Jan. 6 news footage and being like, ‘Is this what they were talking about?’ But there's no way in which I felt like I was writing this play in order to predict events. I was mostly just reflecting back what I was hearing.”

Austere in form, “Heroes,” steeps us in the heated conversation of its characters as they reveal how they've changed since leaving the security of Transfiguration. The positions they espouse (anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-anti-racism) will be alienating for theatergoers accustomed to seeing their values mirrored back to them. But Arbery makes it difficult to dismiss their humanity even when they seem to be dismissing our own.

This is a difficult play yet a necessary one in an America that is either unwilling or incapable of binding its own fractures. If we can't listen to one another, we certainly won't be able to reach anyone. "Heroes" starts from this premise.

Read more: Playwright August Wilson was ahead of his time. But would he have made it today?

Rogue Machine's production, astutely directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos, grounds the play in an enriching character-based realism. At Playwrights Horizons, "Heroes" (directed by Danya Taymor) seemed as enticingly abstract as a musical work, a symphony of provocative arias building to a desperate Rachmaninoff climax. At the Matrix, the excellent cast inhabits the silences of the play as adeptly as they slip into the boisterous arguments. The multifaceted nature of the drama requires more than one encounter to appreciate.

Theater critic turned TV producer (“Veep,” "Succession”) Frank Rich saw “Heroes” in New York and recommended the play to Jesse Armstrong, the creator of “Succession.” Armstrong liked what he saw and offered Arbery a consulting role on the HBO series.

“There's some political stuff in Season 3 that I helped with, along with giving some notes on scripts," Arbery said. "And then [Armstrong] asked me back for Season 4 as a full writer, which was great because the last thing that I wanted was to be seen as some sort of conservative whisperer. I feel I have more to write in that space, but to be asked on as a full writer and to write an episode that doesn’t have anything to do with politics was such an honor.”

The irony of “Heroes” launching Arbery’s profile is that he said the play isn’t characteristic of his work. He described his style as “unconventional,” even a little “weird,” and called “Plano,” the “freewheeling and surreal” play that came out a year before “Heroes,” his favorite of his works.

Arbery was raised in Texas in a conservative Catholic home. His parents are academics who now teach at a conservative Catholic college not unlike Transfiguration. He has seven sisters, no brothers. Arbery broke tradition by not attending a Catholic university. Instead, he went to Kenyon College and then received an M.F.A. in writing for the stage and screen from Northwestern University.

After grad school, he returned to New York, where he lived after Kenyon, and settled in Brooklyn. Inspired by such playwrights as Young Jean Lee, Richard Maxwell and Erin Courtney, he became part of the downtown theater scene. He named Maria Irene Fornés and Caryl Churchill as crucial influences and expressed an early affinity for Tom Stoppard that is clearly evident in his proclivity for cascading monologues.

“Heroes" had me imagining what a modern-day hybrid of Anton Chekhov and George Bernard Shaw might be like in a dramatic package that observes the same unity of time and place as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Arbery said that while he loves Chekhov, he wasn't aware of the metaphoric connection between the mysterious sound of a string breaking in "The Cherry Orchard" and the frightening noise that interrupts the backyard gathering in "Heroes" until someone asked him about it in New York.

The success of the play has catapulted him into a different life. He relocated with his girlfriend to Los Angeles and has screenwriting projects on deck. Inspiration has been riding high. He had two new plays produced in New York last year: "Corsicana" at Playwrights Horizons and "Evanston Salt Costs Climbing” in a New Group production at Pershing Square Signature Center. And he's working on a libretto for an opera for The Met, an adaptation of Dostoevsky's "Demons" with composer Matthew Aucoin.

As the WGA strike stretches on and the American theater spirals from one crisis to another, Arbery has been developing a new screenplay he hopes to direct himself. But as fortune would have it, just as he was settling into his new home in Mt. Washington, Rogue Machine announced that they were doing his play.

Arbery is grateful to have been brought into the fold of one of the city’s most adventurous small theater companies. He didn't want to speculate on why the larger theaters in the area weren’t vying to produce perhaps the most talked about drama since Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play.” (Artistic timidity, I suggested.)

Harris, a friend and champion of Arbery’s, was behind an online presentation of "Heroes," and it's easy to see what impelled him to take a producing interest. "Heroes" excavates a stratum of white America with the same incisive probing that "Slave Play" brought to its investigation of our country's interracial foundation.

"I remember Jeremy calling and telling me about 'Slave Play' and me telling him about 'Heroes,' so maybe there was a sort of energetic transfer between the two of us when we were writing these plays," Arbery said. "Jeremy makes me feel braver. He always zeroes in on the bravest thing that my work is doing and pushes me a little bit further in that direction."

Arbery was reluctant to talk about his own political and religious beliefs for the simple reason that he'd prefer an audience to see the play without preconceived notions about the author. It's safe to say that he has trailed away from his strict conservative upbringing, but he was happy to report that "Heroes" has brought him closer to his family, where ideas of the kind debated in the play were rigorously dissected at the dinner table.

"In terms of my relationship with my parents, the play just allowed us to talk more openly about things, he said. "I think it was surprising and also satisfying to them to realize that I've been listening so closely and that I was invested in trying to get it right even if there were some artistic choices that maybe they didn't agree with."

Like one of the characters in "Heroes," Arbery couldn't resist baring his own soul: "Because I chose not to go to a classical Catholic school as all my sisters did, I was the one who got out. I think for a long time they were worried that I was floating aimlessly in the world. And then I circled back around with this play and they saw that I was really doing something out there."

Digging into his own life has yielded creative dividends. "Writing with more honesty and specificity and courage about where it was that I came from, and just sort of owning that and not being ashamed of it, led me on a whole new path as an artist," he said. "Rather than trying to be cool, clever or experimental, I just wanted to write truthfully. It became the only thing I was interested in, even though it was scary."

Arbery said both "Plano" and "Heroes" were born out of this new commitment. His recent play "Corsicana," perhaps his most daringly personal work, was inspired by his older sister Julia, who has Down syndrome.

"Now, it's like I've created a new standard for myself," he said. "Even if I'm not writing about my family, I want to feel like there's something terrifying and impossible at the center of it. Otherwise, it's not worth doing."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.