War is hell. That short, sobering assessment is credited to Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, but it is an eternal truth. Just ask the soldiers and civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria — the list is tragically endless.
Or go to see the short Ground Up & Rising run of Bill Cain’s award-winning play 9 Circles, which charts the descent of a disturbed American soldier into a hell that is just partially of his own making.
The title of the 2010 play is a reference to the nine circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno. But the story told by Cain, a playwright and theater founder who is also a Jesuit priest, is based on the case of former soldier Steven Dale Green.
While serving in Iraq in 2006, Green and several other soldiers entered the home of an Iraqi family. Green was convicted of killing the parents and their little girl before raping and executing their 14-year-old daughter, then setting her body on fire. Nineteen at the time of his crimes, Green was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He hanged himself in his cell at a federal penitentiary in February.
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Cain’s focal character, Pvt. Daniel E. Reeves (Christian Vandepas), commits that horrific crime. But while the playwright in no way makes excuses for the actions of the disturbed young man, he aims for a broader and more nuanced exploration of what led to such an atrocity — and of its aftermath.
As with Green, Reeves is an aimless Texas teen with no job and minor drug convictions when an Army recruiter signs him up, despite the kid’s antisocial personality disorder. Smart but undereducated, lacking the ability to feel empathy, the soldier becomes a hate-filled killing machine whose “best” times are his 10 months of service in Iraq. Involuntarily booted from the Army with an honorable discharge, Reeves brings his rage and post-traumatic stress disorder home, but once the past catches up with him, he begins his extended journey into an ever-deeper hell.
Ground Up & Rising’s exploration of 9 Circles at the intimate Artistic Vibes space in south Miami is pointedly minimalist, keeping the focus on Cain’s words. Director and sound designer Arturo Rossi has the actors work on a nearly barren stage, with a few chairs, a cot and a bucket suggesting Reeves’ shrinking world.
Luis Daniel Ettorre and O’Neil Delapenha as nearly wordless military guards reinforce the play’s nine-scene structure, manipulating Reeves and bringing him the prison jumpsuit that replaces his uniform. But the richer acting opportunity goes to Collin Carmouze and Valentina Izarra, each playing multiple roles as the people who fleetingly attempt to guide Reeves as he moves toward oblivion.
With varying accents and an actor’s transformative abilities, Carmouze portrays Reeves’ commanding officer, military and civilian lawyers, and a pastor so atypical that he seems a surreal embodiment of the prisoner’s nightmare world. Izarra is the public defender who lays out the truth for the deluded Reeves, the Army shrink whose actions let a dangerous man fight on, and the prosecutor seeking the death penalty.
As for Vandepas, he has the difficult challenge of playing man and monster. As the other characters note, Reeves is adept at feigning rage and madness, and at various points he is deluded, soulless and grasping for a way to feel as others do. Rossi lets Vandepas convey a lot of this torment, real and manufactured, with agitated shouting that becomes less effective the more it’s used.
Too, the company stretches what should be a taut 90 minutes into more than two hours by inserting an intermission that undercuts the tension, slowing down the journey toward the play’s undeniably arresting final image. Still, 9 Circles is a provocative, disturbing exploration of a man-made hell on earth.