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Theatre in Review: 9 Circles (Sheen Center)

Josh Collins, David St. Louis. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

With that title, you won't be surprised to hear that Bill Cain's play draws its structure from the Inferno section of Dante's Divine Comedy, and it's difficult to imagine a better guide through its descending horrors than the actor Josh Collins. As Daniel Edward Reeves, a soldier who will be made to pay the ultimate price for the policy decisions of the second Bush Administration, Collins delivers one of the most complex, arresting characterizations to be seen this season: Daniel is disturbed (possibly psychotic), profane, violent -- and, at the same time, a Christ-like figure of sacrifice.

When we first meet Daniel, he is in Iraq, receiving an honorable discharge from the army. The ill-named Operation Iraqi Freedom is unfolding, but, having been offered the keys to his own freedom, the young man is surprisingly resistant. Don't call him a hero, however; having been found to suffer from a personality disorder, he tells the lieutenant that, under the circumstances, a mental illness might be an advantage, as it inures him to effects of killing. The officer responds, with some asperity, that the army's task in Iraq is not to kill people but to build a nation. Well, we all know how that turned out.

This scene kicks off the action on a tense, teasing note. Exactly why is Daniel being let go? Why is he pushing back so intensely? Why is the officer-soldier conversation so cagey, so filled with cat-and-mouse undertones? The action jumps forward in time to a holding pen in the US, where Daniel is nursing a massive hangover. A public defender arrives, and Daniel, thinking he is in on a DUI charge, worries about losing his driver's license. Dumbfounded, she replies, "You are looking at the death penalty, Mr. Reeves." He has been accused of war crimes while in service -- murdering four Iraqis, one of whom he also raped; later he allegedly burned her body.

The rest of 9 Circles chronicles Daniel's path to the death chamber, a hellish descent in which various professionals intervene, trying to prevent the inevitable, usually with their own agendas in mind. An army attorney, who informs Daniel that the president has spoken about him on television, calling him "a stain on the United States' honorable image," thinks he can make a larger point with the young man's case: "The army knew what it was getting when it took you. You have drug convictions. No high school diploma. No employment record. They had to lower every requirement they have to get you in. They had to give you a morals waiver." A tough, take-no-prisoners pastor elicits from Daniel a memory of stopping an eleven-year-old Iraqi boy, who, under his coat, had explosives strapped to his body. A civilian lawyer tries to bury Daniel's case in a blizzard of suppositions and qualifications. A flashback reveals a session with an army psychiatrist that is an exercise in futility, for if Daniel confesses to homicidal impulses, he will be set up for discharge.

Throughout, Collins' Daniel is part enigma, part powder keg -- his manner alternately taunting, evasive, and furious, his affect ranging from hostile to confused to almost homicidally focused. As he faces off with one professional -- military, therapeutic, legal, or religious -- after another, each of them tries to impose a narrative that seeks to explain his savage behavior. As he is handed from one institution to another, his coiled energy -- his caged animal affect -- only becomes more pronounced. And notice the look in the actor's eyes as he fights back, refusing to subject himself to any form of analysis; his truth -- as ghastly as it is -- is his alone, not to be surrendered, no matter the consequences. This is a commanding performance, made all the more effective by the actor's fearlessness; not for one second does he seem to court the audience's sympathy.

Indeed, without Collins' magnetism, 9 Circles would suffer greatly; Cain's dramatic method is circular, pitting Daniel against one interlocutor after another, revisiting material that has already been raked over, most of the interchanges ending in a draw. None of them can stop Daniel's preordained progress, which necessarily must end in lethal injection and a long, slow fade to black. After a while a certain impatience sets in, a feeling that no conclusions can be drawn, that we are assembled to watch Daniel be made to die for the sins of a war recklessly set in motion with no realistic end in sight. 9 Circles is powerful, but it is also relentless and repetitious.

If Kent Nicholson's direction can't quite solve this problem, he does provide a sleekly designed production with a solid supporting cast of three, all of whom play multiple roles. Ryman Sneed is solid as both the public defender who comes bearing dire news and the army psychiatrist who grows increasingly disgusted at Daniel's refusal to play by the rules. David St. Louis is especially strong as the pastor who justifies his manipulations as the work of the Lord. Aaron Roman Weiner is fine as two lawyers with sharply differing agendas.

To meet the challenges of a play that shifts locations every ten minutes or so, Lex Liang has designed a series of grey curved walls that nest into each other like Russian dolls. (He also provides the effective costumes.) The lighting designer, Kirk Bookman, individualizes each scene with its own distinct patterned looks. Victoria Deiorio's sound design begins before the play, with the voice of George Bush making his case against Saddam Hussein; later we hear Colin Powell speaking to the UN, testifying to the existence of weapons of mass destruction that never were.

When we finally arrive at the destination where Daniel has been headed all evening long, it results in the play's most gripping sequence: The young man, alone in the death chamber, paralyzed, waiting for his organs to shut down, shares his innermost thoughts, revealing a raw pain and vulnerability that we haven't seen before. Bookman imprisons him in a cone of white light that becomes overwhelmingly bright. As the speech devolves into a handful of broken phrases, his via dolorosa is complete. It's a kind of redemption -- but a savage one. -- David Barbour

(9 March 2017)

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