How to live well: UD Drama Dept.’s hit production of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning”

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Whether in Core classes or overheard Cap Bar debates citing the Catechism, you may feel that at the University of Dallas, there is no shortage of Catholicism. Many of us take for granted the ease of the “UD bubble,” where the majority of the community are Christians seeking truth, beauty and goodness in everyday life. 

Outside of the bubble, however, exists a myriad of complications that can be summed up with one overwhelming question: how are we supposed to live as Catholics in a fallen, secular world?

The Catholic Imagination Conference, first held in 2015 at the University of Southern California by poet and translator Dana Gioia, was created as a response to the marginalization and under-representation of Catholic writers and artists from the literary public square. 

UD hosted the Catholic Imagination Conference from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1 and had in attendance speakers such as Dr. Glenn Arbery, Paul Mariani and UD’s own Dr. Anthony Nussmeier. 

The conference ended with a production of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” by Will Arbery at the Irving Arts Center, directed by Drama Department Chair and Professor Stefan Novinski. 

The play opens on Aug. 19, 2017, in a small town in western Wyoming, on the night of character Gina’s inauguration as president of the Transfiguration College of Wyoming, which calls to mind a fellow Newman Guide college that UD’ers may be acquainted with.

The situation is a familiar one: four graduated friends talking late into the night after drinking varying amounts and dealing with varying crises. The main crisis that haunts the characters is one that haunts us all as we get closer to or further from college graduation: what the hell do we do now? 

How do we live well as Catholics in a secular world, once we leave our quaint little non-secular bubble?

Arbery, son of Drs. Glenn and Virginia Arbery, who coincidentally are respectively president and professor at Wyoming Catholic College, received an almost-surprising amount of critical acclaim for “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.” After premiering in fall 2019, the play was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was the winner of the 2020 Whiting Award for Drama and the 2020 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play.

Why does such a niche play resonate so strongly with a broader audience? The characters struggle with the specifics of being good Catholic adults in a politically turbulent America, but they also struggle with the most fundamental problems of humanity: pain, suffering and the ever-pressing question of vocation.

Novinski’s production of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” received much acclaim. The reading, performed Oct. 1, was performed with a cast that, Novinski said, embodied a yet-unexplored facet of the play.

“The people on stage had the same questions as the people watching it,” said Novinski. “It was very different than the New York production. Glenn Arbery said to me after, that our reading of the play revealed aspects of it that they had never seen.”

Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson, the Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence for Humanities and Classical Education in the Braniff Graduate School of Liberal Arts, selected “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” for production during the Catholic Imagination Conference at UD. 

Novinski jumped at the chance to direct Arbery’s play, and, since the reading was cast with UD students, he said, “The whole thing had this meta-theatrical quality.”

The play depicts much of the turmoil within conservative Catholics, as it is set directly after the Trump 2016 election, and explores the situation of tension and uncertainty in America. The four characters, who act as almost a quartet of complexities in beliefs and experiences, live totally different lives with poignant struggles despite all being Catholic and having similar formative experiences at Transfiguration College of Wyoming.

“I think the play is ultimately about a group of people suffering. It almost doesn’t matter what they believe in, because it’s about a group of people who are lost, but searching,” said Novinski.

The play’s title references the Strauss-Howe generational theory, devised by William Strauss and Neil Howe in the book “The Fourth Turning.” 

The character Teresa, an alumna of Transfiguration, has left Wyoming for New York and struggles with living out her faith and conservatism prudently in a secular city. She declares that they and the rest of their generation are “heroes,” according to the archetypes of this book, and that they have to fight and save America.

The characters debate over typical Catholic talking points, such as the coming culture war, how to treat Planned Parenthood employees, and whether or not Plato predicted Trump.

“They’re asking these big questions: what is the good life? How should life be lived? They’re also sort of diagnosing each other the whole time, which we do,” said Novinski. “Their suffering is honest, and it’s painful.”

The reading starred senior Classics major Charlie Spurgin as Justin, senior Drama major Loretta Bond as Emily, UD alumna Ann Urbanski as Teresa, UD alumnus and local actor Paul Bond as Kevin, and Dallas actress Elly Lindsay as Dr. Gina Presson.

Bond had wanted to be a part of the reading since she was so moved by the play. The play went better than the cast could have hoped, she said, and was awed by the audience’s responsiveness during the reading and the volume of praise they received afterward.

“It hit close to home for most of the audience,” she said. “Their response absolutely blew us away.”

In her video book review of the play, Wilson explained that the play puts major questions into dialogue.

“What is the priority?” Wilson asked. “Do we go out into the world as a holy fool? Do we go out and join the alt-right?”

The president of Transfiguration, Dr. Gina Presson, comes on stage toward the end of the play. She taught each of the students in their classical studies, and one of them is her daughter, so she plays a unique role in helping them during their late-night philosophizing.

“The students come back after several years of graduation and [their time studying at the college] had not quite formed them as [Dr. Presson] had hoped,” said Wilson.

“It’s not really about the failure of the great books, it’s more about the movement of the great books as resources to help people be better who want to be better. But it’s not a magic solution for people’s sins, and it’s not one way or a monolithic way of thinking of being in the world, … instead we get to see these ideas in dialogue.”

“When you first start reading the play,” said Novinski, “you think it’s going to be a critique or an advertisement of Wyoming Catholic College and the Catholic liberal arts mission. And when, in fact, it becomes about a group of people grappling with truth, and grappling with where they’re at in their lives.”

In a Q&A panel, moderated by Dr. Jennifer Frey, University of South Carolina philosophy professor, Frey asked about the interior transformation that comes from a classical education.

“If at the end [of the play], they’re just looking into the abyss, are they better equipped to do it?” asked Frey.

Urbanski responded that she did not feel discouraged by the play. “Even though these people are broken in many different ways, they are actually doing in their own ways what Dr. Presson describes.”

“It seems like they’re able to look into the abyss and then get up again,” she said. “There’s an aspect of grit.” 

Dr. Glen Arbery, who was present on the panel, noted that the play asks a common question among Christians despairing at the state of the world.

“The whole question is the Benedict option or not,” said Arbery.

Lindsay, the actress who performed as Dr. Gina Presson, stated in the panel that while she received a liberal arts education, it was not Catholic. Lindsay spoke about how while she looked to Novinski for guidance regarding the particulars of her character, the play’s text allowed for inspiration and understanding of her role.

“For me, Gina grew out of [the script],” said Lindsay.

Maylis Quesnel, a junior drama and comparative literature major, was in attendance at the production.

“This reading was the best theatrical event I have ever attended,” said Quesnel. “I feel privileged and blessed to have seen such a perfect confluence of text, performers and audience.”

“The play seems to have been written for that roomful of drunk Catholics on the first of October; you would not believe how easily we were laughing. I’ve heard that some people thought this production was better than the New York production.

“What made this performance extraordinary was the audience’s willingness to identify with the action on stage. The play was almost a mirror for our own lives,” said Quesnel. 

“I, and everyone in attendance, saw for perhaps the first time a play about me. So few plays or movies nowadays depict Christians or conservatives in anything other than a negative light. What a joy, then, to see this brutally honest portrayal!”

Quesnel said that upon first reading of the play, she had found it depressing.

“Now, I can see that this play is a marvelous opportunity for comedy because unlike tragedy which portrays characters in a noble light, it depicts human beings with no filter, as the genre of comedy requires. And it’s easy to laugh at oneself through the mirror image of a play,” said Quesnel. 

There have been comparisons between the New York production of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” and UD’s reading, several people noting the varying difference in audience and immediate reception of the lines.

Novinski said that during the performance, there was great humor before the play’s dramatic and heart-rendering end.

But the play’s end was the true testament to the play’s poignancy and the performers’ strength.

“Yet, as the audience chortled, snickered and even clapped, the play’s devastating conclusion was coming,” said Quesnel. “You could hear a pin drop. Afterwards, I was not the only one in the ladies’ restroom with a tear-stained face.” 

Wilson commended the production and also noted the comparison between productions.

“I heard from several attendees, including Joe Hoover of America magazine, that this production was better than the one that played in New York!” wrote Wilson in an email.

The Catholic Imagination Conference is set to host its next conference at Notre Dame in 2024. 

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