I suspect the tendency to post Facebook memes, bumper magnets, and such has more to do with how we didn’t treat returning Vietnam veterans than how we currently regard service men and women in the 21st century. We may not care enough to make sure they get proper treatment for their physical and mental ailments in the field or back home, but we’ll go up and make them uncomfortable by thanking them in airports. Does everyone in a uniform deserve hagiography?
Consider the case of Daniel Edward Reeves whom we meet in Bill Cain’s arresting new drama (2010), 9 Circles. The title refers, of course, to Dante’s Inferno, and the circles are those of hell, symbolic of the stops Danny makes from being just another grunt in Iraq to facing the ultimate punishment after having been accused of raping and killing a 14-year-old girl (with the participation of two other men in his squad) and burning her body. Her parents and younger sister were also shot to death. This was entirely a crime of passion; these people were innocent Iraqi citizens. Does Danny, his name another nod to Dante, qualify as a hero? Only in the mythological sense, but that is fitting because his story is molded into one of the most influential mythologies of all time, although most Christians don’t seem know it, Dante created the Christian concept of Hell. There’s next to nothing in the Bible about it, but Dante’s details on the tortures of the damned are copious and horrific.
The idea of the circles structures the play, which is confusing at first, but it sorts itself out, or it mostly does. Danny (Michael Scott Rash) is a lowly private in the service who has served only 10 months when he is, against his will, honorably discharged after voluntarily speaking with an Army psychiatrist (Michelle Hand). The discharge scene is “Circle 1,” but the meeting with the doctor isn’t shown until “Circle 5” after a lawyer (John Wolbers) has demanded to know the details of the “confidential” meeting. Danny knows that nothing is really ever “confidential,” though, so eventually, he’s willing to tell his story. The problem is, Danny’s narrative makes Freddy Krueger look like someone who was just a little cranky.
The time is 2005-06, and Danny is from Midland, Texas, an obvious reference to the hometown guy who got him into this mess. But Danny is also a troublemaker who had been arrested three times by the time an Army recruiter got him a waiver so he could enlist. This is a damning statement on what kind of person will be accepted into the military in wartime. To go much further with the plot would be giving away too much, and a lot of the impact of this play comes from its twists and turns. But there is, as you would expect from the title, a certain inevitability to the whole business. The center of the play is the amazing Michael Rash. He is new to St. Louis, this is his first show locally, and he knocked me out.
Besides Hand (billed how to write essay as “Woman”), the rest of the cast (“Man 1” and “Man 2”) consists of B. Weller and Wolbers respectively. All three assume various roles in the story. Weller struck me as especially strong as a born-again Christian who visits Danny in jail. He leaves him a copy of the New Testament when one of Jesus’ parables strikes a chord in Danny and seems to relate to his own situation. Hand is very good as the psychiatrist, and both she and Wolbers deftly delineate between playing two lawyers quite differently. Rash is the star here, but the whole cast, under GP Hunsaker’s expert direction, is excellent.
Hunsaker is also responsible for designing and building a functional set with the props needed to suggest the various locations where the play takes place. Meg Brinkley is props master. The lighting by David Hahn is especially important to this story, and his work is outstanding. Mark Kelley’s sound is entirely appropriate, as are Cat Baelish’s costumes. The technical aspects of the show add much to its impact. R-S Productions is premiering 9 Circles in St. Louis, and it’s a winning pick. I came out with a couple of questions about the story, especially one of the circles in which Wolbers in a military lawyer role came to see Danny with an interesting proposition, but then disappeared. Danny says later that he “only sees everybody once,” but it’s unclear why the course of action that lawyer suggested wasn’t pursued.
Our values as a society are held up right in front of us and interrogated. Besides the “all soldiers are heroes” fallacy, our knee jerk reaction to animal cruelty versus how we feel about the destruction of the enemy, especially one whose society is entirely different from ours, is explored. The military establishment comes off as a bureaucracy full of jaded people who are weary of the whole thing, unless of course, they are absolutely George Patton cuckoo. But a war is a war is a war, and a war by any other name stinks as bad as they have since the Middle Ages, and from time immemorial. It is a rare play that dares to challenge us and our assumptions as much as this one does, and the experience of it is profound. If you doubt theatre’s power to disturb your universe, 9 Circles should change your mind.