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Catholic conservatives who grapple with culture, faith, and politics are people ‘Heroes’ playwright Will Arbery knows well

From left: Elise Piliponis, Jesse Hinson, and Dayna Cousins rehearse a scene from "Heroes of the Fourth Turning" at SpeakEasy Stage Company.Anabel Rios Photography

In the wake of the seismic 2016 presidential election, playwright Will Arbery remembers all too well bewildered news reporters flocking to diners and cafes across the Midwest to speak with Trump voters and trying to understand their allegiance to the candidate.

“These tender little photo-realistic portraits, they were so superficial and ignored what these people actually believed,” Arbery says in a phone interview. “It felt so disingenuous — and also a disservice to the actual subjects because they have real agitations, obsessions, and beliefs that were getting glossed over.”

The media’s shallow examination of Donald Trump supporters “crystalized” Arbery’s desire to write a play in which “those beliefs were really said out loud and given their due, so that we could look at them and actually process those differences.”

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“So much of what we’re hungry for culturally is a clear-eyed, thorough examination of the different ways we see and approach the world,” he says. “We’re sort of culturally addicted to hating each other, and it’s easier to hate when you’re getting the bite-sized Cliffs Notes versions that’ll just keep that addiction alive. I wanted to do the opposite of that.”

The resulting work, “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” is set in a right-wing Republican ecosystem among a group of Catholic conservatives. Arbery’s provocative play debuted at Playwrights Horizons off-Broadway in 2019 to buzzy acclaim and praise from both sides of the political aisle. It was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and earned an Obie and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play. Now SpeakEasy Stage Company is presenting the Boston premiere of “Heroes” at the Calderwood Pavilion beginning Friday.

The world of “Heroes” is one that Arbery, 32, knows intimately. Growing up mostly in Texas (with a few years spent in New Hampshire), Arbery was raised in a conservative Catholic family, the only son among seven sisters. His parents both teach at Wyoming Catholic College (his father also serves as the school’s president). Arbery attended an all-boys Catholic high school. As a kid, he remembers the heady, energizing feeling of listening to students and professors passionately discussing politics and culture at dinner parties and backyard cookouts his parents hosted.

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Seeking new experiences, Arbery went to secular Kenyon College in Ohio, and he’s spent the past decade living and working as a playwright among progressive-minded people in New York and Chicago. He became adept at “jumping back and forth between” two polarized political and social bubbles. With “Heroes,” he felt a responsibility to give audiences an intimate look at the frank conversations that happen in conservative circles.

“Even before Trump won, it became clear that the country really didn’t know itself,” Arbery says, “just with the way the media is now, with everyone buttressed inside the feedback of their own political preferences.”

Set one week after the white supremacist rally and riots in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, “Heroes” revolves around four young conservative friends reuniting in a Wyoming backyard, where they catch up, reminisce, gossip, discuss the fraught state of the world, and spar over their divergent beliefs. There the friends await the arrival of their mentor, Dr. Gina (Karen MacDonald), the new president of the Catholic college that three of them attended.

An old-school “Goldwater girl” Republican, Gina believes that Trump is an aberration for the conservative movement. Everyone admits they “held their nose” and voted for him, in part because of the anti-abortion judges he has promised to deliver. But Teresa (Dayna Cousins), a budding media maven and avowed Steve Bannon devotee, goes further, saying Trump is a necessary evil. Ominously, she warns that “a war is coming.”

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“The play feels like real people talking — smart, creative, interesting people talking to each other, and that makes it even scarier to hear what they have to say,” says Elliot Norton Award-winning actor Marianna Bassham, who’s directing the SpeakEasy production.

From the outset, Arbery knew he didn’t want to include a comforting liberal voice onstage or give people the fantasy of “a big ideological confrontation between the opposite sides.”

“I knew the subject matter would be controversial, provocative, and a conversation-starter. And I knew people would be hungry for a clear takeaway and probably mad if there wasn’t one, but that’s not what I do,” Arbery says. “I worried that no theater would want to produce the play, and if they did I’d probably be run out of town.”

During a 2018 workshop and reading of “Heroes” at the Cape Cod Theatre Project in Falmouth, several audience members walked out. “It was like exposure therapy,” he says. “It was scary but it actually cemented my desire to put the play on.”

All of Arbery’s plays tend to spring from an autobiographical place. His recent drama “Corsicana” is an ode to his sister, Julia, who has Down syndrome. His 2018 play “Plano,” about three Catholic sisters struggling to navigate relationships with selfish, toxic men, drew on his sisters’ real-life experiences. Meanwhile, a character in “Heroes” is inspired by another sister.

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Because of his work’s personal roots, Arbery says people look for clues about his political views in his biography and interviews — ”whether I’m secretly conservative and this is just my way of giving conservative ideas a platform, or I’m secretly progressive and this is my way of exposing and taking down these people. So I’ve had to stubbornly refuse to give anybody those answers.”

While he wasn’t politically-minded in his youth, he often felt at odds with (and contempt for) the masculine and privileged community he grew up in, one he saw as rife with homophobia, racism, and misogyny. Indeed, in his author’s note for “Heroes,” Arbery says “this play is about whiteness and how it operates in America.”

Writing the play, Arbery says, was not an exercise in empathy. “It was about getting to something much deeper and in many ways much scarier, getting to the core of the beliefs,” he says. “So it’s this idea of really beholding difference and testing the limits of empathy, actually.”

One of the toughest challenges of writing “Heroes,” he says, has been “really looking at myself and my own history and letting the specificity of where I came from just be out in the open and allowing myself to be seen.”

“There might have been a period in my life where I was kind of running away from where I came from and downplaying it. So this play has been an act of circling back to the place where I came from but looking at it with really fresh and curious eyes.”

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HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING

Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Sept. 9–Oct. 8. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets from $25. 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.