A review of “9 Circles” by Bill Cain (“Equivocation”), a Strawberry Theatre Workshop production on stage at 12th Avenue Arts through June 25.
Before the house lights go down, and while audience members are still chatting with each other, U.S. soldier Daniel Edward Reeves slinks onto the stage like a coyote.
He’s sullen, eyes hidden beneath the brim of a desert-camo cap, but moves with cocky confidence. He meticulously arranges a table to his liking and carefully positions a chair on either side. The small audience — sitting in a tight, claustrophobic, in-the-round configuration — begins to notice him and quiet down. Then Reeves stalks offstage and leaves us to wait.
This taut, 100-minute production of “9 Circles” — a framing of Dante’s “Inferno” with a young U.S. war criminal at its center — has a way of implicating its audience in the action. The play, by Jesuit priest Bill Cain, is loosely based on the horrifying, real-life story of Army private Steven Dale Green, a young soldier from Midland, Texas, who was convicted in 2009 of playing a key role in the murder of an Iraqi family and the serial rape of a 14-year-old girl.
by Bill Cain. Through June 25, Strawberry Theatre Workshop at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $27-$36 (800-838-3006 or strawshop.brownpapertickets.com).
The play’s descent begins with Reeves’ discharge from the Army — an honorable discharge, for a “personality disorder” — and ends with his execution. (No spoiler alerts here: This play is a character study, not a thriller.) Along the way, Reeves meets a pastor, a psychiatrist and a series of exasperated lawyers. And, like the narrator of the “Inferno,” he’s perpetually confused.
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“Sir, we came here to kill people, sir,” Reeves says in the first scene, as his lieutenant gives a lecture about nation building. “I don’t mean we’re here to killallthe people. Just the ones who hate freedom. Whoever is left when the killing stops — that’s the nation.”
Actor Conner Neddersen gets the coyote role just right. His Reeves is a lean, angry combination of pitiful child and chilling moral vacuum, a clever kid with minimal education who can’t understand why his country would train him for brutality in a war zone and then punish him for doing what he thought he was supposed to do.
Director Greg Carter, of Strawberry Theatre Workshop, has also coaxed strong performances out of three supporting actors, who play the various officials Reeves meets on his way down — particularly Sylvester Kamara as a sly-but-stern Army lawyer and, in the next scene, an equally sly pastor who tries to bring Reeves to Jesus while admitting that he’s “a recovering alcoholic with an internet porn addiction I’m working on.” (Later in the scene, Reeves marvels: “You are the goddamnedest minister!” The play, like the “Inferno,” has moments of humor — but it’s unsettling humor.)
While “9 Circles” pivots around an undeniably horrible act committed by an undeniably disturbed person, it suggests that he wasn’t acting alone. “Who has the right to judge this man?” a defense attorney (Sam Hagen) asks during Reeves’ climactic trial. “We haven’t the right … We hired him. We paid his salary. We were his employers.”
The prosecutor (played with steely intensity by Norah Elges) counters in a fury: “This is not — not — about the war. This is about a young girl.”
That moment is the play’s heart of darkness. When a country decides to wage a war, “9 Circles” argues, it’s always about what will happen to young girls — and the young people we train to kill them.