‘Freedom Entered the Room’
Playwright Bill Cain (sitting), with “9 Circles’’ actors Jimi Stanton (center), Amanda Collins, and Will McGarrahan. Photo by Essdras M Suarez/Boston Globe
By Robert Israel
In a scene from Bill Cain’s one-act play 9 Circles, the actor who portrays fictional character Private Daniel Reeves stands onstage before a makeshift sink, rinsing his naked torso with a sponge. As the stage lights dimly illuminate his prison cell, many in the audience in the performance I attended1 audibly gasped at the raw physicality before them, as if gazing upon a man cleansing a gaping wound. As the actor washes himself in an act of ablution, it calls to mind an earlier discussion between prisoner and priest about the soldier’s baptism. Some minutes later, before the final curtain, the actor delivers a seven-minute monologue, spoken in snippets of previously heard speeches. His gnarled words sputter forth, timed to rhythmic spasms of his torso, as his mind and body succumb to a lethal injection that has been administered by the court as punishment for the horrific crimes he committed during his tour of duty in Iraq. In this final scene, Private Reeves is bathed in bright, white light. Cain, the playwright, wrote a note to his 9 Circles script: “As the intensity of the light grew, the moment became a transfiguration.”2
In 2013, the United States marked the tenth anniversary of its invasion of Iraq. The costs of that war are still being tallied. What is known is that tens of thousands of lives were lost, billions of dollars were spent on armaments, scores of refugees were scattered throughout the region, and countless acres of landscape were scorched and decimated. What has yet to be fully grasped is the repercussive emotional price paid in terms of human suffering.
Although a decade has passed, only a handful of American plays have probed the human cost of the Iraq war. Bill Cain—a Jesuit priest—has emerged as one of these playwrights. 9 Circles explores the Iraq conflict through characters who reveal the war’s profound and transformative effects on the human condition. Composed of tense and terse scenes structured to emulate the nine “circles” of the Rings of Hell from Dante’s Divine Comedy, the play premiered at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, California, and has been subsequently produced by repertory companies in Boston and Gloucester, Massachusetts, as well as in Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Denver. In 2011, the play was recognized by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association as one of the best scripts that premiered professionally outside New York City, winning the $25,000 New Play Award.3
“I am a Jesuit priest who is supposed to find the presence of God everywhere and to celebrate it,” Cain said in an interview in his office at the Fordham Jesuit Community in New York City. “I had read a story about a soldier who tried not to be a killer, but he was unable to change. Indeed, he had become baptized during his basic training so he wouldn’t have to kill.”4
Cain’s source for the play was the case of former 101st Airborne Division Pfc. Steven Dale Green, who was convicted in a federal court in 2009 of raping and killing an Iraqi fourteen-year-old girl, murdering her family, and later setting them on fire. Green, who said he was following orders from the other soldiers also involved in the murderous acts, is now serving five consecutive life sentences for his crimes.5
“My goal in the play was to create a lead character, an antihero, who ultimately achieves understanding about what he’s done,” Cain said. “He finally feels the pain of the enemy. He doesn’t have to pretend he has to fight to see himself clearly. I have tremendous sympathy for Private Reeves. How does one say ‘no’ to war? It’s not in the language we use. We use words like ‘axis of evil,’ and ‘shock and awe.’ I am asking audiences to look at themselves, to ask how, individually and as a nation, we can seek an answer to this question.”
Cain’s work questions God’s purpose and gives voice to humankind’s struggles to find redemption in an often indifferent world. His works stimulate public discourse and follow in the path of other Jesuits who have made similar forays in the fields of drama, academia, and politics. The late Father Robert F. Drinan, S.J., who devoted many years serving constituents as a U.S. representative from Massachusetts, is but one example. Another is Father Daniel J. Berrigan, S.J., a published poet and playwright, who, now well into his ninth decade, achieved notoriety when he and his brother Phillip were put on the FBI Most Wanted Fugitives list in 1968 for staging protests against the Vietnam War.
Cain met Father Berrigan when he was a teenager growing up in upstate New York. “I was impressed with Daniel Berrigan’s outspoken views against the Vietnam War,” he said. “He greatly influenced me to become aware politically.”
When Cain left his home to enroll at Jesuit-run Boston College, he did not seek a career as a writer.
“When I began my studies in the late 1960s, I announced I wanted to work with the poor,” Cain, now sixty-five, said. “But I was told, ‘We really don’t do that,’ and that the development for a Jesuit at Boston College was meant to be more of an intellectual undertaking.”
Cain joined the campus dramatic society and found himself in the company of other students seeking creative outlets.
“I don’t remember a single class I took,” he said, “but I have strong memories of being involved in theater.”
One of those students he bonded with was Robert VerEecke, now an ordained Jesuit priest who ministers to congregants at an inner-city church in Boston and teaches as a tenured Jesuit artist-in-residence at Boston College.
“The Jesuits have a long tradition to be involved not just in theology, but to be motivational in faith and justice,” Father VerEecke told me in a 2012 interview. “Bill and I are fortunate in that we had access to many priests who were composers and artists during the 1960s, and they influenced who we are today.”6
After successfully performing on campus, Cain and several of his classmates made the collective decision to perform in the Greater Boston community.
“Our first performance was a children’s show at a state mental hospital,” Cain remembered. “We performed it with guitars, a washtub bass, and other instruments, all of us singing original songs. We were out of our league. When we entered the hospital room, there were no people there. And then they entered . . . from doors with locks so you couldn’t open them to gain exit or entrance to other rooms. And something happened. The room ceased to be a prison. Freedom entered the room.”
Emboldened by their success, Cain and his fellow ragtag thespians obtained permission to stage a similar show at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“The same remarkable thing happened,” Cain said. “We were in the leukemia ward. In the face of this terrible disease, in the face of leukemia, our performance made people human. Something happened . . . it is the presence of God. It is not a metaphor. This event, which erases differences, introduces us into something larger, and I knew then that I needed to do this for a lifetime.”
Cain graduated from Boston College in 1970 and “ran away to join the circus,” he said, taking up with a traveling troupe and learning how to juggle. He then returned to Boston, determined to “do art, to make it mine, in the marketplace.” He founded the Boston Shakespeare Company (BSC) and stayed for seven seasons—from 1975 to 1982—housed first at a church and later at Horticultural Hall, an ornate, nineteenth-century edifice located in the Back Bay, across from Symphony Hall. Cain experienced numerous triumphs, including “All Night Bard,” three Shakespeare plays staged back-to-back, starting at night and running through the entire next day. Television and screen stars Peter Gallagher, who was then studying at Tufts, and Courtney B. Vance, who was then enrolled at Harvard, performed at BSC during this time. The company is credited with paving the way for many local troupes that have since transformed Boston into a center for multiple, live stage events and numerous small, experimental troupes. When the BSC ran out of money, Cain moved to New York City’s Lower East Side.
“I took a part-time job teaching at a nativity school,” he said. “There were lots of drugs on the streets, and prostitutes, and I wrote a play about it called Stand-Up Tragedy.”
Stand-Up Tragedy was a success, attracting the attention of producers at the ABC television network. He was hired to write Nothing Sacred, a series of teleplays about a fictional Catholic priest who wrestles with the tenets of his faith and the doctrines of his church, set against a backdrop of inner-city brutalities. The series received the Peabody Award and the Humanitas Prize. Despite this, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights boycotted the show, and ABC canceled it less than a year after it debuted.
Cain, who had found his métier as a playwright, completed Equivocation. First produced in 2009, it tells the story of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when Robert Catesby and a group of provincial English Catholics failed in their assassination attempt of King James I, resulting in the death of Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest, who was hanged as a ringleader in 1606. In Cain’s play, William Shakespeare and his friends dress in modern garb and speak in colloquial English. Equivocation, like 9 Circles, was awarded the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award.
Another recent play, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, an autobiographical work about Cain’s family and the care he ministered to his elderly and infirm mother, had its premiere at the Seattle Repertory Company in 2011. It has subsequently been produced by repertory companies in Los Angeles and Silver Spring, Maryland.
“When you have success in L.A., all the television people take you out to lunch and hire you, and I haven’t been out of work in twenty years,” Cain said. “I don’t find much difference between stage and television. I love them both for the same reason—gathering a community around a story—with any luck, with some laughter—always widening the circle of inclusion. I love theater for its intimacy and television for its vast reach.”
Cain does not harbor any rancor toward ABC over the network’s decision to cancel Nothing Sacred following the Catholic League’s boycott of the series.
“We didn’t last long—one season—but, while we lasted, we created a national community and it was an extraordinary experience,” he said.
Stage directors who have worked with Cain’s scripts find that his message of faith as a vehicle to attain enlightened self-awareness resonates with audiences.
Kent Nicholson, director of musical theater and literary associate at the Playwrights Horizons in New York, who has directed several productions of Cain’s plays—including the West Coast premiere of 9 Circles at the Marin Theatre Company and How to Write a New Book for the Bible at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre—said audiences respond to Cain’s message.
“Bill believes that God is perfect and that faith is an established path, but the real tough work is to apply God and faith with a belief in yourself and others,” Nicholson said. “9 Circles, a work of dramatic fiction, came about when Bill read about an American soldier in Iraq on trial for committing atrocities. The role of the female psychiatrist in the play is based on real life, because this soldier confessed to her that he was about to commit atrocities. It’s a hard play to do. But Bill believes, despite this character having committed these horrible acts of murder and rape, that he is able to find redemption because a belief in God is transformative.”7
When director Eric C. Engel tackled Cain’s 9 Circles for its east coast premiere at the Publick Theatre in Boston in 2011—later transporting it to the Gloucester Stage Company in 2012, with the same cast of three actors who played multiple roles—he wanted to emphasize the play’s “linear and accessible” format.
“It’s not so much a play about war,” Engel said, “but about one man’s personal salvation. Bill’s work strips the character of Private Reeves bare. He’s a naked man, physically, psychologically, and psychically. Bill’s gift as a playwright is to give audiences this experience where you see, feel, and hear people to their very core.”8
For Cain, it comes down to a simple maxim: “Faith and God are easy,” he said, “it’s believing that you matter that is very, very hard.”
The process of creating a new work, either for stage or screen, is an arduous one, Cain noted. He workshops many of his plays at the Ojai Playwrights Conference, an arts enclave sixty-five miles north of Los Angeles, California; he credits the producers, directors, and fellow writers there with helping him shape his works, and he says he is always reworking his scripts.9
“Some of my current projects include writing an episode of House of Cards for Netflix, a play on Robert Lincoln and the birth of the Republican Party, and a play on painter Thomas Eakins,” Cain told me. “And I’m still working on a screenplay on the life and work of Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who was my roommate for fifteen years, who ministers to young people in the Pico-Aliso district in East Los Angeles.10 I originally wrote it under contract for Columbia TriStar, but it didn’t get made. So they turned it over to Greg, and I’ll get back to work on it someday soon.”
Cain said his priestly calling is writing. Like his friend and fellow Jesuit priest Father Robert VerEecke, he also regularly leads congregants in Mass at a parish in New York City.
When asked what else he might pursue if his writing muse were to abandon him, he replied by saying he would return to teaching.
“God wanted me to teach children, especially those children in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades in tough neighborhoods. But for now, it’s all about the writing,” he said.
- Robert Israel, review of 9 Circles by Bill Cain, directed by Eric C. Engel, Gloucester Stage Company, Edge Boston, August 20, 2012, www.edgeonthenet.com.
- Bill Cain, 9 Circles, unpublished script. Quotation used by permission from Cain’s agent, Beth Blickers, Abrams Artists Agency, New York, NY; phone: 646.461.9322.
- Adam Hetrick, “Bill Cain Takes Steinberg/ATCA Award for Second Consecutive Year,” Playbill, April 4, 2011, www.playbill.com.
- Bill Cain, interview by author, April 2013. All quotations attributed to Cain are from this interview.
- Brett Barrouquere, “Ex-US Soldier Gets 5 Life Sentences for Iraqi Deaths,” Huffington Post, April 9, 2009, www.huffingtonpost.com.
- Robert VerEecke, S.J., interview by author, December 2012.
- Kent Nicholson, interview by author, December 2012.
- Eric C. Engel, interview by author, December 2012.
- Adam Hetrick, “Ojaj Playwrights Conference to Develop Works by Bill Cain, Stephen Belber, Adam Duritz, Danai Gurira,” Playbill, July 1, 2011, www.playbill.com.
- Carol Ann Morrow, “Jesuit Greg Boyle, Gang Priest,” St. Anthony Messenger, August 1999.
Robert Israel is a writer and editor who lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.