Craig Marker has become one of the stalwarts of San Francisco Bay Area theater. No matter what kind of character he plays, he always does well. In Bill Cain's "9 Circles," he surpasses any previous performance I've seen by him. In this world premiere production presented by Marin Theatre Company, he plays 19-year-old Daniel Reeves, an intense, angry, volatile Texan. In an allusion to the nine circles of Hell in Dante's "Inferno," the one-act, 105-minute play is presented in nine scenes, introduced as circles.
In the first, Daniel is an Army private serving in Iraq, where he's about to be honorably discharged against his wishes. In the next, he wakes up in jail thinking he's been arrested for drunken driving, but instead he's facing the death penalty for things he did in Iraq. He is accused of killing an Iraqi civilian family in their home and, with his comrades, raping and killing the family's 14-year-old daughter. He also has had the traumatic experience of seeing his unit's esteemed sergeant senselessly killed at a checkpoint. Over the course of the play, he talks with a different person in each scene, or circle. Each one takes him through a bit of Hell. Only the final scene could use some fine-tuning as it goes on a bit too long.
James Carpenter, another Bay Area stalwart, plays all of the male roles: the Army sergeant who tells Daniel he's being discharged, an Army lawyer, a civilian lawyer and a minister. Each has an entirely different agenda and personality, all clearly delineated by Carpenter. (He'll be replaced by Aldo Billingslea later in the run.) Jennifer Erdmann plays all of the female roles: a public defender, a federal attorney and the Army psychiatrist whom Daniel sees in Iraq. Along the way, Cain makes some points about the senselessness of the war in Iraq. One of the people that Daniel talks with even implies that he is being made a scapegoat by higher-ups because he made them feel the pain of the enemy.
Cain, who also wrote last year's well-received "Equivocation," has won MTC's 2010 Sky Cooper New American Play Prize for "9 Circles," which he says is based on an actual incident. The honor is well deserved because the play is fascinating, riveting and thought-provoking, especially in the capable hands of director Kent Nicholson and a sterling cast. The intimacy of MTC's 99-seat Lieberman Theatre magnifies the intensity, which doesn't need many trappings. Michael Palumbo, who also designed the lighting, sets it on a small, light-colored platform just one step up from the floor. Set pieces are few, usually only a chair or two. Likewise, Callie Floor's costumes are basic, as is Cliff Caruthers' sound. Therefore, the focus is on the drama and acting, which is where it should be in a play like this.