The complexities of faith, politics, and personal history collide in Will Arbery’s bracingly original “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” throwing off enough sparks to start a forest fire, or at least an argument.
There are certainly plenty of those in “Heroes,” as a reunion of four Catholic conservatives — eventually joined by a fifth — turns into a polemical showdown. For at least a few of them, the unspoken goal is to see who has the right right stuff.
As you may have guessed by now, “Heroes” opens a window onto a world — and a worldview — that are seldom represented on Boston stages, certainly not in this kind of depth. Let’s face it, contemporary theater is not exactly overflowing with nuanced depictions of conservatism and its adherents.
But all five characters in “Heroes,” now at SpeakEasy Stage Company, are hyper-articulate figures of substance rather than cartoons. The play’s intricacy requires the kind of finesse director Marianna Bassham (taking a break from her acting duties) brings to the SpeakEasy production, and performances as expertly calibrated as those Bassham elicits from her splendid cast.
It’s 2017, seven years after they graduated from an ultra-conservative Catholic university, and four former classmates are at an after-party in a Wyoming backyard, having assembled earlier to see Gina (Karen MacDonald), their onetime mentor, inaugurated as president of the college.
The straw that stirs the drink at that party, with a put-up-your-dukes gusto, is Teresa (an outstanding Dayna Cousins), whose fierce intelligence and certitude are married to an Ann Coulter-ish mean-spiritedness. Maintaining that “There’s a war coming” in the struggle for Western civilization, Teresa expresses fervent admiration of Steve Bannon and champions Donald Trump.
(“Heroes” takes place one week after the deadly rally by white supremacists in Charlottesville — a notable backdrop when the play’s subject turns to race. All five characters in “Heroes” are white, and Arbery asserts in an author’s note on his script that the play is “in part, about whiteness and the way it operates in America.”)
Teresa has little trouble steamrolling Kevin (Nathan Malin), who is spiritually conflicted and longing for a girlfriend, a combination that has Kevin practically coming apart at the seams. He fundamentally doesn’t know who he is or who he wants to be. The taciturn Justin (Jesse Hinson, who is married to Bassham) suffers no such confusion. A decade older than the others, he’s the quintessential rugged individualist, and is every bit as absolutist in his religious and political views as Teresa, albeit in less overtly combative form. Rather than directly confront what he sees as the dominant liberal culture, as Teresa does in her website column, Justin prefers to stay remote from it.
Lastly, there’s Emily (Elise Piliponis), Gina’s neglected daughter. Living with a painful chronic illness, Emily is the most recessive figure onstage — Justin is tenderly solicitous of her, and Kevin has a crush on her — yet also the most open to outside perspectives. She is dogged in her defense of her friendship with a woman who works at Planned Parenthood; one of the play’s most no-holds-barred sequences is the debate between Teresa and Emily on abortion. Later, when Emily finally releases all the complicated emotions she has been bottling up, Piliponis is riveting.
There is some messy business from the past to sort out among the ex-classmates, generating friction amid the more high-minded talk of religious dogma and political philosophy, which proves to generate plenty of friction of its own.
While “Heroes” is a work of drama, not advocacy, the play takes its characters and their ideas seriously — and then goes the extra, necessary step of forcing them to confront the personal cost, for them and for us, of living out those ideas. And their early ideals, too: Think “The Big Chill” or “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” but at the other end of the ideological spectrum.
Now, you may well find “Heroes,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist two years ago, to be overly talky. Arbery’s words-per-minute velocity can verge on the Sorkin-esque. But it’s the caliber of the talk that counts, right? And on that score Arbery vigorously delivers.
Even if the playwright sometimes crosses that fine line between cerebral and esoteric, especially when the subject turns to soul-searching and the nuances of Catholic doctrine, “Heroes” is consistently compelling thanks to his exceptional skill at creating a battleground where the battle is no less fierce despite the fact that everyone is on the same side, more or less.
And what they say and do is rooted in, and revelatory of, character. That adds to the play’s impact; seldom does it seem as if Arbery has simply marshaled talking points and assigned them to designated mouthpieces.
There are few clichés more shopworn than to say that a play is one you’ll talk about on your way home from the theater. But with a surefire conversation-starter like “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” it has the virtue of being true.
HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING
Play by Will Arbery. Directed by Marianna Bassham. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Oct. 8. Tickets start at $25. 617-933-8600, www.SpeakEasyStage.com