This month has been a whirlwind of great performances in relatively unfamiliar plays. And this weekend's your last chance to catch iTheatre Collaborative's 9 Circles, an example of just such a production.
This small company, playwright Bill Cain, and local director/designer Steven J. Scally all have fine pedigrees, and the script and its presentation are entirely respectable, but what really ignites here is Phillip Herrington's acting. He's on stage for all but a couple of minutes near the end, and when he does exit, it's good that Cain wrote him a line to excuse himself; Herrington occupies the stage so entirely that, in his absence, the audience might be at an utter loss otherwise.
Herrington plays Daniel E. Reeves, a young Army private who's honorably discharged for a personality disorder and later charged with capital crimes he's alleged to have committed while in Iraq. The plot, based on actual events, gets much more complicated than this, and so does the subject matter.
While in custody, as well as in the recent past and in flashback, Reeves meets several people whose job descriptions would indicate that they're there to help him. It's left uncertain whether they do. They're played clearly and well by Stacie Stocker and, especially, Bruce Laks. The fact that four of these characters are lawyers may have something to do with the relentlessness of the play's dialogue -- which, though not a bad thing, does approach overwhelming from time to time.
The title refers to the circles of hell described in Dante's Inferno. The scenes are correspondingly numbered and announced, which has the effect of making one wonder, "Really? This is only the sixth one?" That's mostly because Reeves is suffering and it's easy to find the action troubling, if not downright depressing. It's also an intermission-free experience, just so you know.
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This show would be philosophically trippy if it weren't so demanding of a spectator's attention. The writing is well-crafted and guides the point of view from one character to another, and because they're all listening hard and trying to understand information they often wind up wishing they hadn't acquired in the first place, you'll wind up wanting to accompany them each step of the way. (There's also a sprinkling of wit and humor to relieve some of the stress.)
Scally keeps things moving right along, and the actors' commitment to the story is reinforced by a bare-bones set, unfussy but evocative costuming, and a haunting sound design. Maybe there are almost too many ideas in 9 Circles, but that's a problem we face in war and in life these days, and we can't run away.