Story: Daniel Reeves has led a troubled life in his 20 or so years. He’s dropped out of high school, been busted for drugs and had problems holding even menial jobs. Somehow all of that is blurred over by an ambitious Army recruiting agent who signs the disturbed young Texan up for military duty. Reeves is shipped over to Iraq, where in 2006 he is ‘honorably discharged,’ a troubled soul who raises eyebrows among psychiatrists and military officers over his lack of remorse at killing. That puzzles and angers the private, who points out that a soldier’s job in wartime, at least as he perceives it, is to kill the enemy.

An atrocity puts Reeves on the map when he is alleged to have led a group of soldiers who killed an Iraqi family, including raping, murdering and setting on fire a 14-year-old girl. While he’s on trial for his role in these heinous acts that the President publicly condemns, several witnesses come forward with another story of Reeves throwing a dog off a roof and laughing about it. A series of attorneys, psychiatrists, preachers and superior officers attempt to communicate with him as he journeys, in the words of 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri, through his own “nine circles of hell” to possible redemption.

Highlights: Playwright Bill Cain’s disturbing 2010 drama is receiving its St. Louis premiere in a tense, sobering and telling tale presented by R-S Theatrics at its new home in the Black Cat Theatre in Maplewood. While the pacing suffers at times, primarily in an often tedious second act, for the most part director GP Hunsaker expertly guides his marvelous ensemble through the precarious minefields of Cain’s harrowing, expletive-filled tale of tainted morality that reveals the dark side of a nation as well as a misguided soldier.

Other Info: There was a time when American wars were viewed as noble efforts, starting with the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. We glossed over the Mexican-American War, wrung our hands about the bloody Civil War and celebrated the plunder obtained in the tainted Spanish-American War. Along came two world wars and the Korean conflict that pitted democracy against totalitarianism in varying degrees. Then a battle in Southeast Asia, inherited from the French, finally resulted in public outcry and a departure from Vietnam in 1975.

All of that seems like ancient history in the 21st century as America slogs on in the Middle East, sluggishly departing Iraq and staggering slowly away from Afghanistan. Cain’s biting commentary utilizes Dante’s enduring allegory about human redemption as the soul of his caustic, incisive look at the decline of America’s own core in distant lands, where its soldiers as well as the native civilians live precariously amid constant threats of death and destruction.

Just four performers are incorporated into Cain’s script, which consists of a series of dialogues between Reeves and various people in authority. Michael Scott Rash invests a stunning supply of intensity and exhaustive emotion into the tortured psyche of Reeves. While it’s fascinating and compelling theater, he never is able to generate much sympathy for the main character, whose personal history won’t exonerate his behavior. Still, David Hahn’s harsh lighting design keeps a burning focus on Reeves that Rash is able to fill with copious anger and frustration.

B. Weller, John Wolbers and Michelle Hand, three savvy and superb local performers, judiciously add ballast to the presentation as essentially contemptuous observers of Reeves’ fate who look for ways to promote their own agendas in his twisted arena. They serve ably in that capacity, although one scene with Hand as a military psychiatrist drags on interminably, nearly killing the play’s momentum. Hunsaker would be well advised to accelerate the overall pace of the presentation, which lags markedly behind the running times listed in productions elsewhere.

Cat Baelish’s costumes place the action squarely in military settings or civil courts, complemented by Hunsaker’s shrewdly spartan set design, Mark Kelley’s sound and Meg Brinkley’s properties.

While it’s undeniably powerful stuff, 9 Circles doesn’t really cover uncharted territory. We’ve heard its observations before, whether in The Red Badge of Courage, Catch-22 or All’s Quiet on the Western Front. It’s simply a new telling of a familiar story that’s occurred throughout the history of homo sapiens on planet Earth, provocative but not necessarily original.

Play: 9 Circles

Group: R-S Theatrics

Venue: Black Cat Theatre, 2810 Sutton Blvd.

Dates: June 8, 9, 10

Tickets: $9-$18; contact 968-8070 or

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Autumn Rinaldi