When writing about emerging playwrights, one expects—and indeed welcomes—a certain amount of growth. But even with that expectation, a gifted playwright retains the capacity to astonish. Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning made waves in 2019 and reached much larger audiences with a series of excellent Zoom productions in 2020, when it was also shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. Heroes stood out for its refusal to allow its audience the pleasant moral soporific of a liberal morality play: its characters were emblematic of types but not reducible to them, and its presentation of both generational and ideological divides in the American Right led critics across the political spectrum to hail it as a unique window into the tensions and anxieties of a form of religious conservatism that does not often find itself represented in the arts of the Trump era.
All this may have been true, but Arbery also writes about family: he has not been shy in talking about how his family members find their way into his characters—Gina in Heroes takes both her profession and her biography from his mother—and in Corsicana, which opened at Playwrights Horizons on June 22, he draws on his relationship with his older sister. The play opens in a living room in Corsicana, Texas, with a filmmaker named Christopher (Will Dagger) and his older half-sister Ginny (Jamie Brewer), who has Down syndrome. Their mother has recently died, and Christopher has moved home from Dallas and taken a job teaching film at the local community college to help care for Ginny. There is also Justice (Deirdre O’Connell), a family friend and middle-aged anarchist ex-librarian, who keeps them company and helps with things like getting groceries. Christopher sees Ginny going through an uncharacteristic depression in the wake of their mother’s death, and so Justice arranges for them to meet her friend Lot (Harold Surratt), an older Black artist and musician who lives outside of town.
Christopher’s care for Ginny and Justice’s care for Lot form the dramatic frame, which puts Ginny and Lot together so that he can help her write a song. He insists on doing this as a gift rather than a paid service, because payment entails consumption and, eventually, evacuation: you pay for something and it turns to shit. Gifts and people’s desire to give and to get them are one of the play’s central concerns: How and when do people give, and are they truly giving or do they have another end in mind?
Ginny and Lot expose this tension most effectively: their intellectual disabilities—Lot has no diagnosis, but he spent “a couple years in that hallway” in high school—position each of them as a locus of need, as a bevy of obligations for other people to meet. But Ginny reminds Christopher repeatedly that she is his older sister and takes seriously her own obligation to care for him. And all of Lot’s art, much discussed but never seen, is free creation, not to be sold and certainly not to be pigeonholed as what a writer for the Oxford American wants to call “outsider art.” Lot says that he and Ginny are “special,” equivocating between the euphemism and a sense of depth. He contrasts the two of them with the “Styrofoam people” around them, who are allowed to desire in uncomplicated ways. The metaphor conveys uniformity and simplicity, an easy continuity between need and desire. But part of the play’s work is to expose this simplicity as a social fiction: no one is free of the tension created by an orthogonal relationship of desire to need, and nobody’s needs are really adequately met.