A Special Kind of Hell in War Story at Next Act Theatre

Chiké Johnson and Casey Hoekstra in “9 Circles” at Next Act

Yes, war is, indeed, hell. 

And hell, according to Dante’s “Inferno,” is 9 circles. Nine phases, locations, activities.

And in it’s production of “9 Circles” by Bill Cain, Next Act Theatre the full horror of the particular hell that war can be is on full and eloquent display.

Under the taught direction of Michael Cotey Mr. Cain’s play suffers from occasionally pretentious dialogue (early on I found myself saying “real people don’t really talk like that”) but makes up for this tiny failing with a taut story that starts out in shock and continually raises the stakes over the next 90 minutes. 

We meet Private Daniel Reeves (Casey Hoekstra) as he is on the verge of being mustered out of his tour of duty in Iraq. It takes only moments for us to realize that he doesn’t want to go. He wants to stay and kill the enemy.  He  makes it clear that he is not in the least bit upset by killing, making him, in his own mind, a special and unique soldier. 

Mr. Cain takes us through a journey that matches the most vivid and egregious visions of wartime atrocity that we could ever imagine. 

As circle upon circle reveal themselves, we find that Private Reeves has been accused of a variety of horror, including the murder of an Iraqui family and the rape and murder fo a 14-year old girl. 

Mr. Cain is a Jesuit priest and his profound distrust and dislike for war is evident throughout the play. Although Private Reeves is a monster the play, perhaps surprisingly,there is no blanket indictment of military personnel. It’s abundantly clear that Private Reeves is horrifyingly unique chimera in fatigues.

This play is more of an argument advanced to end war than it is a drama designed to entertain or educate. But the fascination is not to be denied. It’s almost impossible to not watch or be terrified at Private Reeves. In a larger sense the horror at the recruitment of such unbalanced young men and the arming of them with the weapons of war raises serious and unanswerable questions. 

Playing lawyers and military personnel and psychiatrists are Malkia Stampley, Chiké Johnson and David Cecsarini and they all surround Mr. Hoekstra with fearsome authenticity.  Each has moments where the sparks seem about to ignite an inferno.

But it is Mr. Hoekstra who carries the weight of this play. This role demands an incredible reach of emotional intensity and he delivers with nary a misstep. Indeed, Mr. Hoekstra stimulates a repugnance that is unmatched in my experience. 

Mr. Cotey, who cut his theatrical teeth at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and as a founder of the late Youngblood Theatre, is on the road to being one of the finest young directors in the country. He has earned his spurs the right way, continuing education and assisting some of the most experienced directors in outstanding companies. 

This production continues the enviable record that Mr. Cecsarini has built at Next Act as a company that takes on the most controversial and pressing societal questions. 

Production credits: Director, Michael Cotey; Scenic Design, Steve Barnes; Lighting Design, Noele Stollmack; Costume Design, Lindsey Kuhlmann; Sound Design, Gover Hollway; Properties Manager, Heidi Salter; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly; Videographer and photographer, Timothy Moder.

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