The title of Bill Cain’s drama, “9 Circles,” alludes to the concentric regions of torment described in Dante’s “Inferno.” But given the emotional workout actor Julian Elijah Martinez appears to get, in Forum Theatre’s valiant staging of this cerebral and sometimes arid piece, the circles might be so many circus hoops.
Depicting Private Reeves, a soldier put on trial for war crimes after serving in Iraq, Martinez vaults adroitly through divergent modes and attitudes. Now looking drained and sullen, now flashing a creepily bright smile, now barking out words in a macho military shout, Martinez’s Reeves is by turns a bewildered adolescent, a mercurial psychopath and an exhausted geopolitical pawn. In one key scene, a moment of honesty seems to leave the young veteran stunned: Wearing his orange prison jumpsuit, he rocks numbly as he slumps on a chair, almost hyperventilating.
It’s a powerful performance, and director Jennifer L. Nelson’s tightly gauged production — billed as an area premiere — features muscular turns from its supporting cast, too. But Cain’s script adheres to such an intricately conceptual format, and its dialogue and characters are so idea-propelled, that the play often feels less like a satisfying theatrical experience than a dramatized moral philosophy class. (The author of “Equivocation,” seen at Arena Stage in 2011, Cain will also be represented in Round House Theatre’s upcoming staging of his “How to Write a New Book for the Bible.”)
Klyph Stanford’s streamlined scenic design acknowledges the play’s intellectual approach. When we take our seats, we find ourselves looking at reflections of the circle motif: arc-shaped benches set inside a prison cell’s arc-shaped bars. Downstage, a helmet mounted on an inverted rifle recalls a battlefield tribute to a fallen soldier.
Projected onto the wall above the cell at the start of each scene, rubrics tie the proceedings to Reeves’s descent through the nine stages of hell. (Stanford designed the projections.) A once-enthusiastic soldier marked by an apparent personality disorder, Reeves argues and evades when various far-from-disinterested professionals — a psychiatrist, a pastor, and military and civilian lawyers — attempt to talk about the savage acts he has allegedly committed. The intense tete-a-tetes — which offer occasional moments of humor — tease out provocative questions about war, justice, guilt and America’s possible exploitation of its troops.
Was the invasion of Iraq a just use of force? Do we all have the same capacity for evil? Is psychological normalcy a detriment for a soldier? (Echoes of “Catch-22” here.) And especially: Isn’t it incongruous, and perhaps morally dishonest, to quibble about the military code of conduct amid the organized carnage that is war?
Any warrior can make the enemy feel pain, an Army lawyer observes at one point, in a representative bit of brainy banter. Reeves’s actions made his own side “feel the pain of the enemy. That isn’t the end of a war,” the lawyer adds. “That is the end of war.”
Dressed in gray — the color seems telling — the three role-juggling supporting actors sit in the audience when they are not onstage. Jonathan Feuer is particularly riveting as a sharp-as-a-tack civilian lawyer. Katy Carkuff deftly suggests the conflicted feelings of a tough, weary Army psychiatrist, and Scott McCormick channels a manipulative military lawyer and a shifty pastor.
Dan Covey supplies lighting that is, in one pivotal sequence, critical to the play’s meaning, and Thomas Sowers furnishes suspenseful sound design. But despite the artful design and performances — especially Martinez’s virtuosic turn — “9 Circles” never makes you feel as much as it makes you think.
Celia Wren is a freelance writer.
by Bill Cain. Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson; costume design, Frank Labovitz; technical director, Jameson Shroyer. Two hours. Through March 2 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, Md. Visit www.forum-theatre.org or call 240-644-1100.