When Bill Cain’s "9 Circles" had its East Coast premiere last spring under Eric C. Engel’s direction at the Publick Theatre in Boston, it was hailed as "not to be missed" by EDGE Boston writer Kilian Melloy.
Let me add my own praise for the play, now being performed under Engel’s direction in an encore production by the Gloucester Stage Company until August 27.
Sometimes a production is so spot-on it needs to be seen, or given a second viewing. This is one play that warrants that kind of recommendation.
Engel has time-traveled "9 Circles," with the same cast - Amanda Collins, Will McGarrahan, and Jimi Stanton - and transported them to East Gloucester’s Gorton Theatre. It works, splendidly.
Cain, a Jesuit priest, has written a modern morality play for our bellicose times. His play explores themes of war, peace, rape, murder, and the role of religion in its quest for unflinching compassion, and it does so with such a profound sense of pacing and intensity, you will find yourself riveted throughout the taut 90-minutes.
Yet Cain’s play is not crafted on the classical definition of a morality play, namely an assumption that man begins innocent, repents, and is later saved because of his return to the sacred space - all before the final curtain. Instead, Cain’s anti-hero, Daniel Edward Reeves (Stanton) begins his journey as a profane and troubled young man even before the U.S. Army welcomes him into their open arms and he is sent, as a "grunt," over to the hell that is Iraq. He is a man that has already fallen from grace. Make no mistake: he takes pleasure defining himself as a killing machine.
Seeing this production with its minimalist set designed by John Malinowksi, I thought back to another play about an American war, "How I Got that Story," by Amlin Gray, that dealt with similar themes set against the exploits of the Vietnam War. In that play from 1981, the actors take multiple roles. Cain’s "9 Circles" calls for actors to display the same fluidity.
Will McGarrahan, who plays an Army officer, a civilian lawyer and a priest, brings an alacrity to his transformations that make them seem effortless (yet we know it is never easy as simply stripping on stage and donning a new pair of trousers). Amanda Collins, again imported to Gloucester from the original production, has the same requirements, although her parts are more understated, which is not to say any less strenuous. She shines finally as an Army psychiatrist who loses her professional objectivity and poise ever-so subtly at first and then full-throttle, bringing a needed emotional layer to a play that is often ponderous in its philosophical and theological explorations.
But let us now praise Jimi Stanton as the Texas hayseed Reeves with such passion that one senses he has to truly hold himself back, except, of course, at the play’s final moments when he stands, like a modern-day Jesus, writhing on a cross (in this case in a prison execution chamber). Stanton stands under six feet but seems to tower above the other actors by the sheer prowess he exudes from his buff physique. When he emerged in brief nude scenes on stage, the audience made a collective gasp. And, in a scene that comes near the play’s shattering finale, when he administers his ablutions - reminding us of his description of a baptism earlier in the play - the play shows us a layer of his humanity as he performs this solitary and final act of contrition.
The "circles" in the play’s title refer to the circles of hell where the damned face the ultimate inferno. Cain, a gifted playwright and theologian, reminds us that the Hieronymus Bosch view of Hell - where demonic creatures devour and excrete damned souls - is not the one he wants us to envisage. Yes, there are evil people down below, and yes, they are there to roast and to atone for their transgressions. But there are also people in Hell, who in the name of patriotism, for example, wind up there, simply because their beliefs superseded their humanity. They wandered from the sacred space and committed unmentionable acts, for which they must be held accountable. But Cain is saying that they erred on the side of righteousness as defined by their own twisted logic, and we all do that every day.
The play is a parable for our times, and the gifted Gloucester Stage cast - having honed their skills from a previous production last year at the Publick - is nothing short of extraordinary.
"9 Circles" by Bill Cain, directed by Eric C. Engel, is being presented by the Gloucester Stage Company, Gorton Theatre, Gloucester, now through August 27. For ticket information visit their website www.gloucesterstage.com.