Jesuit playwright Bill Cain S.J., has penned a new and searingly powerful play. Just a year after his earlier successful play about the gun powder plot, Equivocation (see my review), Cain portrays in his new play, 9 Circles, a character, Daniel Reeves, as a disturbed 19-year[old snarled in the web of war. Cain's drama mirrors, through a fictional adaptation, the 2006 Iraq slayings and, subsequent, gang rape of a 14 year old girl by United States troops. Like the real life Pvt. Steven Dale Green who, partially, serves as the prototype for Cain's Reeves and now awaits life prison without parole for his war crime, the fictional Reeves displays an 'anti-social personality disorder'.
The title, 9 Circles, refers, of course, to Dante's Inferno, the 9 circles of hell. In the play, Reeves, successively, shifts from a rigid, brainwashed Army killer to a finger twitching 19-year-old grunt to, in a final soliloquy, some profound self-knowledge and forgiveness. Reeves' soliloquy which ends the play left the audience in a sort of protracted stunned silence before it finally erupted in deserved applause. One woman leaving the theater exclaimed to her companion: "That wasn't a play, it was an experience!" Indeed, for some of us the play had many gut wrenching moments which lingered long afterwards, like some Kafkaesque nighmare.
9 Circles is a multifaceted, serious exploration of military attitudes and justice. It also takes us through insurgent retaliations on the military in Iraq that encompass kidnapping, torture and beheading. 9 Circles raised for me issues of the recruitment of mere boys, often from dysfunctional families and, themselves, troubled, into the military where they will, willy-nilly, in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, be confronted with a malaise of horror, confusion, powerlessness, brutality. No wonder so many of our armed service personnel return home from such wars with severe post-traumatic stress syndrome and, alas, often enough turn to substance abuse (and, in the saddest case, suicide) to sort out the violence they have both experienced and, partially, perpetrated. Our city streets now harbor many veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as homeless. I pondered, too, how distant most of us Americans are from these wars, fought not just by soldiers but "contractors." Alas, for many of us, these wars are as unreal, as simply virtual violencee, as are some video games.
Reeves, in Cain's play, is confronted, in each succeedding circle, with army personnel, lawyers, psychiatrists, a smarmy preacher who tries to get Reeves to embrace Jesus before he is put to death. For most of these characters, Reeves is merely a "case" to be dealt with somehow. One lawyer, however, recurringly returns to Reeves and promises him that if he, the lawyer, could really understand his story and why he raped and murdered the 14-year-old girl, he might be able to win over a jury's sympathy. When, at last, in his final soliloquy Reeves does, finally, tell his own version of the story, I, for one, would have found it hard to sentence him to death.
In an interview, Bill Cain lingers on that image of Dante's Inferno. He recounts how he was turned off by the take-no-prisoners, good versus evil, battles which consume so large a percentage of our core moral stories. Alas, he remarks, in the bible no tears get shed for Goliath. But in Dante Cain finds a friendlier voice: "Heaven and hell are not so far apart," Cain says. "In the Divine Comedy they are adjoining territories. To get to one, you have to pass through the other. Although some of the people you meet in hell are undoubtedly evil, many are not. There are many good, beautiful, unlucky people in hell and a great many mediocrities on their way to heaven. One of the joys of the journey is Dante's surprise in finding that he has good friends in both places. There are sympathetic moments all along the way. And there is compassion for the damned. At the very center of hell there is a terrible violence, but the ones perpretrating the worst of it weep as they do it."
Cain's play had its world premiere at the Marin Theater Company in Mill Valley, California. I had seen their stellar production last year of his other play, Equivocation, which won the 2009 Steinberg new play award. 9 Circles has been granted Marin Theater Company's 2010 Sky Cooper New American Play prize. I have absolutely no doubt that many further productions of 9 Circles will be mounted elsewhere, including in New York.
Dante covered a vast assemblage of human problems and sins in his circles--lust, gluttony, avarice, violence, fraud and treachery in the lot. Cain is more focused. He probes such weighty issues as whether our Iraqi involvement was necessary; how military personnel cope with 11-year-olds who have explosives strapped to them; if tormented soidiers can turn to Jesus; does pure evil actually exist and could military psychiatrists harm their patients.
As actor Craig Marker who gives a riveting performance as Reeves put it in a post-performance question and answer period: The crux is whether an individual can "find the light of God after having to go through the depths of hell". Not surprising that a Jesuit priest playwright might insinuate that the answer could be yes. My various friends who have served as chaplains at San Quentin also seem to suggest the answer is yes. If we are inclined to answer no, might we have, perhaps, also lost that light of God?
John A. Coleman, S.J.