Curious theater season starts with “Heroes of the Fourth Turning”

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Audiences might find “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” —  at the Curious Theatre Company through Oct. 15 — rattling. And not merely because a few times during the drama about four college friends who’ve gathered at the town of their conservative Catholic alma mater, an ear-splitting noise causes them to raise their hands to their ears in pain.

Justin (Lance Rasmussen), whose home is where this barbed reunion takes place, apologizes for the booming sound. It’s a generator on the fritz, he says. (Though, given the messianic strivings of a couple of playwright Will Arbery’s characters, the sonic roar hints at some grander disruption.)

A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2020, “Heroes” opens the 25th anniversary season at the Curious Theatre Company. Voluble and well-acted, the drama underlines this season’s intention to make its audiences ponder “What does it mean to be an American?”  It also lives up to the theater’s long-time tagline, “No Guts, No Story.”

After all, these characters are not typical of independent American theater — at least not in the way Arbery gives them space to speak and to wrestle with their truths.

The play takes place on the evening of Aug. 19, 2017. Earlier that day, Transfiguration College in rural Wyoming inaugurated its first female president, Gina Presson (Tammy L. Meneghini). It’s also two days before the total solar eclipse and a week after the Unite the Right rally in Virginia at which a counter-protester was murdered by a white supremacist.

If you go

“Heroes of the Fourth Turning.” Written by Will Arbery. Directed by Kent Thompson. Featuring Lance Rasmussen, Adeline Mann, Sean Scrutchins, Noelia Antweiler and Tammy L. Meneghini. At Curious Theatre Company, 1080 Acoma, through Oct. 15. For tickets and info: curioustheatre.org or 303-623-0524.

While the campus of Transfiguration College is nearly 2,000 miles from Charlottesville, Va., the rally is somewhat on the minds of the characters.  And although there are no people of color or representatives of the LBGTQ community in this wee clique, “they” are very much on the minds of the quartet, as are presidents Trump and Obama, Steve Bannon and Pat Buchanan.

The “Fourth Turning” of the title refers to the idea that there are four repeated phases in an 80-year (or so) cycle of American history (American by way of Western Europe, to be clear). Each crank of the cycle brings a new archetype with it: Prophet. Nomad. Hero. Artist. By right of birthdate, Justin, Teresa (Noelia Anweiler), Emily (Adeline Mann) and Kevin (Sean Scrutchins) are called upon to be heroes. Although there is some question as to whether the older Justin — a Marine Corps vet who returned to school — falls just outside that demarcation.

Set designer Markas Henry has created a nuanced, handsome space for the ensemble to wax and wane eloquently, drunkenly, earnestly beneath a starry night. A door opens onto a porch on one side of the stage; there’s a fire pit around which much of the contretemps will unfold center stage; and the wood-planked exterior wall of an outbuilding bookends the other side of the stage.

Director Kent Thompson maintains a dynamic space for the “friends” to rail, muse and hash out their feelings about each other, about their education (“Hey does this school actually make good people?” one asks), about God and yearning.

Playwright Will Arbery’s Catholic agonistes on full display with actors Noelia Antweiler and Sean Scrutchins in “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.” Credit: Michael Ensminger, provided by Curious Theatre Company.

Kevin stumbles into the scene stinking drunk and a little sour with self-loathing and lonesomeness. Gentle Emily, who rallied for her mother Gina’s auspicious evening, has an unspecified and debilitating illness. (Her father is also a well-regarded professor at the college.) As for Teresa — whose debate-team muscles remain flexed and who is profoundly comfortable hurling the first, second and fourth stone — she’s at her flintiest talking about “baby murderers.”

Antweiler (so notable in Arvada Center’s spring production of “Stick Fly”) imbues her character with an arrogant, swaggering energy. Ideas and ideology often have an erotic charge, seeming to convey power. Teresa’s thriving in New York City (that den of iniquity) with a fiancé, a blog for a conservative website, a burgeoning following. She strides into the space. She vanquishes verbally. She exhausts.

These characters are representatives, but never stereotypes. While they have some individual quirks, they often seem to be stand-in for divergent, overlapping, even contradictory ideas about faith and political fealty. The playwright has some earned intimacy with their conflicts and aspirations. Arbery’s mother is a professor at, and his father is president of, Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyo., 150 miles west of Casper.

Their understanding of their role in the world isn’t lock-step, though perhaps they represent too much. For all its aches and doubts, “Heroes” makes for a decidedly cerebral night. Each friend gets his or her bravura soliloquy reflecting a strain of thinking or anxiety, or far too briefly, compassion.

There are plenty of crests and troughs to the night. Listen for bouts of tender poetry amid the bursts of a politics of indignation or fear.  Emily describes her body as “a prairie of pain.” Even drunk as a skunk, Kevin recalls splendidly William Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us.”

Just when our time with this quartet grows wearying, “Heroes” turns tartly intriguing as Transfiguration College’s newly minted president and Emily’s mother, Gina, a very fine Tammy L. Meneghini, enters the frayed night.

“What’s going on here tonight?” she asks. Things have gotten noticeably messy and morose. Some of the disarray is amusing. Kevin tries to hide in the background, covering his vomit-streaked shirt. Some of it is anguished. Emily has been in physical pain for much of the evening, her can’t-we-be-nice sentiments rebuffed again and again by Teresa’s stridency or Kevin’s sloppy soul-searching.

Is it possible that the love and ideology espoused by Gina when these four were her students was misunderstood by them — or was it understood too well? She seems genuinely confounded by the mood of her former students.  And you could pen an essay on the tensions between Gina’s daughter by blood and her daughter by way of theory. When Gina and her mini-me, Teresa, spar intellectually, it’s fascinating for its feints of reason and its abundance of mutual disappointment.

The play ends with a final soliloquy, this one Emily’s. Given her timidity, her fury is unexpected, yet warranted. It is also not entirely her own. In a scene in which she seems possessed, she channels her own anger as well as that of a former client she tried to help at a women’s clinic in Chicago.

The play and Mann’s riveting moment leave us with rightly unresolved aches.  Hers is a body and soul in pain amid a body politic riven with a suffering that she senses she shares some role in.

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