Steven Olson was fresh off an appearance in "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," a play set in Iraq during the early days of the American invasion, and was looking for another theatrical outing that had something to say about modern-day U.S. soldiers.
His interest is understandable: Olson, who served two deployments in Afghanistan, now is a student at Oregon State University, where he also holds the position of student coordinator of veteran affairs. He wasn't interested in sugarcoated or overly simplistic stories about soldiers: He wanted something that felt honest.
Mike Aronson, one of the coordinators of the Majestic Reader's Theatre, recommended Bill Cain's "9 Circles."
Cain isn't a veteran, but Olson was impressed by the play: "It offers an honest take," Olson said. "This is the good, this is the bad, this is the ugly."
So Olson, a speech communications major and theater minor at OSU, will direct the Majestic Reader's Theatre production of "9 Circles" this weekend. (See the related story for details about the production.)
In "9 Circles," a contemporary morality play inspired by Dante's "The Divine Comedy" and real-life events, an Army private, Daniel Edward Reeves, is directing traffic in an Iraqi town when a driver in a stopped vehicle shoots and kills the patrol leader. Reeves watches his sergeant die, strikes out in revenge, and is accused of acts of rape and murder committed against Iraqi civilians.
In some respects, Reeves' journey through the justice system is meant to evoke Dante's circles of hell. Cain's view of Reeves and, by extension, the military, offers considerable nuance, and that appealed to Olson.
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"The playwright very easily could have made it an anti-soldier play," Olson said. "He didn't. He made it more about the honest truth of what war is like" — and Cain understands that the events depicted in the play "didn't happen in a vacuum."
The casting of Reeves was critical, and Olson said it was a difficult part to fill — until Jason Mogler, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, expressed his interest.
"That was a pretty easy fit when he showed up," Olson said of Mogler, who was in the news last year as the producer of "Grunt," a documentary film about veterans. "We both understand the material through the lens of a grunt."
But the part still is challenging: Mogler is on stage for the entire show, and each scene requires him to show a different side of Reeves.
The production of "9 Circles" features some minimal props and staging, but the show is stripped down, like many of the Reader's Theater productions. But that intimate approach works well for the intensity of the play, Olson said.
"I would hope that folks, when they're done (watching the play), have more perception and more thoughts and perspectives than when they come in," Olson said. "War is this terrible, corrosive thing. But it becomes a gray area as soon as you step into it."