If I could grab you by the shoulders, Dear Reader, look you square in the eye and tell you "See this play-now!" I would. Forum Theatre's accomplished and deeply moving production of Bill Cain's "9 Circles," now at the Round House Theatre's Silver Spring stage, is that good. And that necessary.
Inspired by the real-life trial of Steven Green, a troubled Iraq war veteran, Cain ("Stand-up Tragedy," "Equivocation") has created one of the most thought-provoking, compassionate pieces you will ever see about war and its costs-not just on service personnel, but on all of us. Director Jennifer L. Nelson has assembled an impressive cast and honed their performances into a brisk and truly bracing evening of theatre. Don't be put off by the subject matter; this is the kind of serious drama that justifies the whole genre, a play where you will come to care deeply about every character you meet, including the darkest of anti-heroes.
The centerpiece of the play and the production is Private Daniel Reeves, played with astonishing energy by Julian Elijah Martinez. Back home with an honorable discharge, Reeves has barely enough time to mourn the loss of his comrades before he is imprisoned and charged with a heinous crime that, if he is convicted, would mean the death penalty. Martinez gives us Private Reeves as a fully-realized and complex human being, as terrifying as he is sympathetic. Already demonized by the press and the authorities, Reeves endures the further humiliation of prison-cell encounters with people who profess to care about him, but who promptly disappear. Martinez gives us a raw young man who endures emotional abuse, anti-psychotic drugs, sycophants, even lawyers, but who never has the one thing he needs most-the chance to connect honestly, one on one, with another human being.
Cain structures the action around the nine circles of Hell in Dante's classic poem Inferno (hence the play's title) and true to the Medieval original in each scene we encounter the sins of Anger, Violence, Lust, Greed, Treachery, etc., but with the twist that we're never really sure where the guilt and innocence truly lie. Seated next to us in the audience, each member of the supporting cast enters the stage in multiple roles, implying our complicity in the war and the trial to come. Each character appears to have the best interests of Private Reeves at heart-or do they? We first see Scott McCormick as an aloof Army lawyer with just a hint of concern; in his next incarnation we see him as a flamboyant minister, as profane as he is desperate-but to do what? To save Reeves' soul, or to simply escape? Even more impressive is the steely resolve of Katy Carcuff's military shrink, and her performance as the prosecutor at Reeves' trial is one of the show's many highlights, while Jonathan Feuer matches wit and passion with Martinez' Reeves admirably as his defense lawyer.
Klyph Stanford has done a tremendous job of creating a simple, symbolic space, anchored by an upturned rifle, concentric circles, and a bare minimum of set pieces, with above-stage projections that are as discreet as they are haunting. It is an actor's paradise and one that allows audiences to focus on the people instead of the gadgetry. Frank Labovitz's costumes share in the production's minimalist approach, giving just enough information to follow the story without calling attention to itself, and Thomas Sowers' sound design flows effortlessly with the action.
Forum Theater's mission has always been to offer audiences thought-provoking drama, and the company will host after-show discussions for the next two Thursdays of the run - February 21 and February 28. I cannot think of an evening better spent, and hope you can join them.
Performances of 9 Circles are Wednesday-Saturday at 8 PM, and Sundays at 2 PM, with a special performance scheduled for Monday, February 25.
For tickets call 240-644-1100, or go to the Round House Theatre website: