Based on Iraq War atrocities, 9 Circles is clear-eyed and tightly written

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

W.H. Auden, September 1, 1939

On March 12, 2006, five soldiers stationed at a dangerous traffic checkpoint in an area of Iraq that the military called the Triangle of Death entered the nearby home of a fourteen-year-old girl called Abeer Qasim Hamza. Steven Green, a private, took her parents and six-year-old sister into an adjoining room and shot them while two of his fellow soldiers raped Abeer. Then he entered the room where she was struggling, and raped and shot her. Afterward, the soldiers set her body on fire.

I was ambivalent about seeing Curious Theatre's regional premiere of Bill Cain's 9 Circles, whose plot tracks very closely with Green's known actions and experiences. Publicity implied the play would involve some kind of revelatory understanding on the part of the protagonist, here called Daniel Reeves, perhaps even his redemption — though no one actually used this word. It was an idea I fiercely resisted: Green's crime seemed beyond redemption. And all the usual explanations offered in these circumstances — the fog of war; the insanity caused by witnessing the death of fellow soldiers; a government that sends impoverished and sometimes unstable young men into battle; endless television propaganda about a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam (propaganda that both the real life Green and the fictive Reeves believed); the methods by which the Army turns recruits into killers, in part by convincing them that the enemy is subhuman — all of these faltered in the face of its viciousness and enormity. I kept remembering the dying Nazi who begged Simon Wiesenthal, as a representative of the Jewish faith, to forgive him. Only the dead could grant such forgiveness, Wiesenthal said. Or perhaps in Green's case, only Abeer's little brothers, who came home from school to a scene of blood and fire.

What a relief to discover that Cain's play — while it does in some form raise every one of these issues — goes far deeper than I had imagined it would. 9 Circles, loosely shaped by Dante's Inferno, is clear-eyed, tightly written and tough-minded. It is also filled with grace. You are not asked to identify in any shallow or sentimental way with Reeves, only to recognize his humanity as he endures his descent into hell, resisting, jeering, grieving, sometimes even joking, refusing for a long, long time to acknowledge the immensity of what he's done, and encountering on his way lawyers, a priest and the Army counselor to whom he confided his desire to kill everyone and from whom he received in response a bottle of pills and a slip permitting his return to battle. Cain's imagery is spare but telling. Intellect and emotion twin in this exploration of the nature of evil — and ultimately the play implies that at its root, evil is the inability to empathize with others. To feel another's pain. This failure is at the heart of war, as it is at the heart of individual wrongdoing. Reeves is utterly alone. He doesn't understand his interrogators any more than he does the people he encountered in Iraq, and they don't understand him, either — though occasionally one has a flash of insight into his condition, or a thoughtful comment about the wrongness and futility of war.

Cain is a priest, and his religious questioning gives the script its compassion, luminosity and depth. When Reeves's attorney says that low-level soldiers like his client are society's scapegoats, the biblical concept of the scapegoat resonates within his speech: the living creature released into the wilderness with the sins of the community on its head. When Reeves washes his hands in a basin, we think of Pontius Pilate, and we think also of baptism and purification.

Sean Scrutchins, a newcomer to the Denver stage, gives a breath-stopping performance as Reeves, twitchy and out of sync at first, coming slowly to inhabit his own brain and body, truthful and entirely without self-pity. He receives fine support from Erik Sandvold, Karen Slack and Michael McNeill, each playing several roles.

I'm still unraveling all the strands of this marvelous play in my mind. But one thing I do know: If what Reeves finds in the searing and uncompromising final scene of 9 Circles is redemption, it's a redemption as grim as it is twistedly just.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman