9 Circles, which is being given its East Coast premiere by the Publick Theatre (at the BCA Plaza through April 9), takes its name from Dante’s Inferno. But there’s more to this spiritual juggernaut than the worn-out notion that war is hell. Sure, the play unwinds from Operation Iraqi Freedom and the atrocities on both sides that have made that conflict an exemplar of the concept. But Bill Cain’s play is no anti-war screed (though it does ask some tough questions about our adventure in Iraq, among them whether it is indeed a war or “just violence”). Rather, it is, as Cain insists, a depiction of one troubled individual’s journey — a journey undertaken in Eric Engel’s concentrated staging by newcomer Jimi Stanton, whose performance as a soldier accused of a heinous crime committed against civilians in Iraq is chilling and heartbreaking all at once. This guy is a misfit and a murderer with a serious compassion disorder, but someone for whom you nonetheless feel as he barks and flounders his way toward the better part of himself.


The play — which moves between “Iraq and after” — is something of a homecoming for Cain, a Jesuit priest who founded the Boston Shakespeare Company in the 1970s before going on to write for stage and television. It is a finalist for the 2011 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award (a $40,000 prize Cain won last year for Equivocation). In a series of taut encounters, the play pits Stanton’s Daniel Edward Reeves, a smart if sociopathic 19-year-old from a Texas backwater, against a commanding officer, a series of attorneys and shrinks, and one very eccentric pastor, all played by a lively Will McGarrahan and an efficient Amanda Collins. What emerges is a portrait of a disturbed young man for whom the Army has been a last ditch, a band of brothers, and a license to kill, as he struggles to comprehend his situation and his soul. And given the lacerating candor of both the script and Stanton’s performance, the latter a mix of redneck bravado and lost boy’s anguish, you are with Reeves every step of the way toward manhood.

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