In April 2010, Father Robert Ver Eecke welcomed fellow Jesuit priest and playwright Bill Cain to a public forum at Boston College (BC). Modeled on the famed “Inside the Actor’s Studio” with James Lipton, it was billed as “Inside the BC Studio with Bill Cain.” Ver Eecke, an artist-in-residence at the school, is an old friend and classmate of Cain’s. To listen to these two men in conversation was to experience how a lifelong friendship has been made deeper by a shared devotion to God, faith, and the healing power of the arts.
“I don’t remember a single class I took,” Cain said of his undergraduate days at his alma mater BC, “but I have strong memories of being involved in theater.” It was during one college production, which took place in the cancer ward of a hospital, that Cain discovered his calling. “In the face of this terrible disease, in the face of leukemia, our performance made people human. Something happened,” he said, noting he felt the presence of God. “I knew then that I needed to do this for a lifetime.”
In the 43 years since, Cain has made a career of the theater, working as an actor, director, and now writer of screen and stage plays. A recent work, 9 Circles, a one-act play about the Iraq war, has been produced in cities across California, Massachusetts, Arizona, and Colorado. In 2011, the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/America Theatre Critics Association bestowed upon the playwright the $25,000 New Play Award, presented for the best scripts that premiered professionally outside New York City. It is the second time Cain has won that accolade, the first being for his 2009 work Equivocation, about the death of a Jesuit priest after the failed assassination of James I in 1605.
“I am a Jesuit priest who is supposed to find the presence of God everywhere and to celebrate it,” Cain said in an interview from 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.”
Cain’s source for 9 Circles was the case of Private Steven Dale Green, formerly of the 101st Airborne Division, who was convicted in 2009 of raping and killing a 14-year-old Iraqi 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 act, is now serving five consecutive life sentences for his crimes.
In creating a fictional work for the stage based on this horrific story, Cain constructed terse and tense scenes meant to emulate the nine “circles” of hell from Dante’s Divine Comedy. During the course of the play, the audience learns of Private Reeves, the character based on Green, and the atrocities he has committed, his subsequent punishment, and his execution by lethal injection. The turning point comes when the actor playing Reeves stands naked onstage, engaged in a ritual act of ablution that calls to mind his discussion about baptism with the priest in an earlier scene.
In the production I attended, the actor stood before a makeshift sink, rinsing his torso with a sponge. Many in the audience audibly gasped at the raw physicality of the scene, as the actor struggled to rid himself of his dark demons. Some minutes later, before the final curtain, the actor stood center stage and delivered a seven-minute monologue, spoken in snippets of previously heard speeches. His gnarled words sputtered forth to reveal a slowly dying mind. During this scene he was bathed in bright light. Cain, in a note on the 9 Circles script, wrote: “As the intensity of the light grew, the moment became a transfiguration.”
“My goal in the play was to create a lead character, an anti-hero, 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.”
“It’s not so much a play about war, but about one man’s personal salvation,” said Eric C. Engel, who directed 9 Circles in Boston and nearby Gloucester, Massachusetts. “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.”
“9 Circles is a hard play to do,” said Kent Nicholson, who has directed several of Cain’s plays—including the West Coast premiere of 9 Circles. “But Bill believes that, despite this character having committed these horrible acts of murder and rape, he is able to find redemption, because belief in God is transformative.”
Of late, Jesuits are most known as the order of the current and newly elected Pope Francis. Cain follows in the tradition of other Jesuits who do not shy away from the public eye, whether it is in the theater, academia, or politics. “The Jesuits have a long tradition to be involved not just in theology, but to be motivational in faith and justice,” Ver Eecke said in an interview. He said he and Bill were fortunate to come of age during the 1960s, when they had access to many Jesuit priests who were also artists and composers. As a teenager growing up in upstate New York, Cain said he met Father Daniel J. Berrigan, S.J., a published poet and playwright, now well into his ninth decade. “I was impressed with Daniel Berrigan’s outspoken views against the Vietnam War,” Cain said. “He greatly influenced me to become aware politically.”
After graduating from Boston College, Cain founded the Boston Shakespeare Company and stayed for seven seasons—from 1975-1982—first at a church in the Back Bay and later at Horticultural Hall, an ornate nineteenth-century edifice located across from Symphony Hall. Though the company closed in 1985 due to a lack of funds, it is credited for paving the way for many local troupes that have since transformed Boston into a hub for live stage events.
Cain then moved to the Lower East of Manhattan to teach, and he also kept writing. He wrote a play, Stand Up Tragedy, which was first produced in 1989 and was about the school where he taught and the violence he saw in the neighborhood.
He then landed contract work to be writer and producer of the ABC series, “Nothing Sacred,” about a questioning priest. It was boycotted by the Catholic League and later cancelled by the network, despite winning the Peabody Award and the 1998 Humanitas Prize.
Cain still writes for the small screen; one of his current projects includes writing an episode of House of Cards for Netflix. He’s also at work on a play on Robert Lincoln and the birth of the Republican Party, as well as a play on painter Thomas Eakins. “And I’m still working on a screenplay on the life and work of Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who was my roommate for 15 years, who ministers to young people in the Pico/Aliso District in East Los Angeles,” Cain said. “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.”
The process of creating a new work is an arduous one, he said. He workshops many of his plays at the Ojai Playwrights Conference, an arts enclave 65 miles north of Los Angeles, California; he credits the producers, directors, and fellow writers there with helping him shape his works, and said he is always learning, always re-working his scripts.
Cain said his priestly calling is writing, but he also regularly celebrates Mass in a parish in New York City. If he gave up writing, he said he would return to teaching.
“God wanted me to teach children, especially those children in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades in tough neighborhoods,” he said. “But for now, it’s all about the writing.”
Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.