By Ruth Ross
Courtroom dramas are among the most popular, long-lived genres on film, stage and television. Think Twelve Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Few Good Men, Judgment at Nuremburg and the venerable Perry Mason television series so popular in the late 50s – early 60s. Most follow a set formula, with an important revelation made in the penultimate scene that completely turns the plot on its head and surprises the characters as well as the audience. (Above L-R: Peter Frechette, Flor De Liz Perez, Margarita Levieva, Melissa Maxwell, John Bolger)
That said, The Trial of Donna Caine, now making its world premiere at George Street Playhouse, fits comfortably in the genre. Despite feeling a bit like a “paint by numbers” set, Walter Anderson’s drama “inspired by actual events” is saved by its discussion of women’s role in the military—in this case, the toughest of the armed services, the Marines. Unfortunately, what starts so promisingly ends up being rather predictable, with a saved-by-the-bell disclosure that comes out of nowhere.
The Trial of Donna Caine is inspired by real-life events surrounding the “Ribbon Creek Incident,” a 1956 training mishap that resulted in the drowning deaths of six U.S. Marines. Playwright Walter Anderson has updated the play so that three of the recruits are female, as is their drill instructor Staff Sgt. Donna Caine (Flor De Liz Perez, left), who finds herself on trial for their deaths. To instill trust and engender esprit de corps in what had been a less-than-stellar platoon, she led them, against regulations, into a tidal creek, noted for its varying depths and the vicissitudes of the tides. When Caine is accused of the serious crime of manslaughter, feisty attorney Emily Zola Ginsberg takes up the cause and, mounting a spirited defense of her client, takes on the military establishment to expose the truth.
Anderson’s script is riveting and timely, for the most part. We are all familiar with the glitches produced by newly installed computer software; not enough mention was made about such software early in the play. Had there been, the revelation would have been inevitable.
That said, Director David Saint lets several characters get away from him. As Ron Kuby-clone defense attorney Vincent Stone, Peter Frechette speaks too quickly and often sounds more like he’s reciting written dialogue than uttering words he thought of himself. Similarly, John Bolger’s prosecutor Roy Gill sounds equally unconvincing, especially when talking on the telephone. And Julia Brothers’ Lt. Col Sandra Eden, Caine’s commanding officer and advocate for men and women Marines training together, sounds wooden, mechanical, although privately she expresses compassion for Caine that is poignant. (Right: Kally Duling and Michael Cullen)
Other actors nail their characters admirably well. With her non-nonsense attitude leavened with a touch of humor, Melissa Maxwell’s Judge Easton maintains tight control on the court proceedings, and Ryan George as Donna Caine’s attractive fiancé “Gunny” Walker walks a fine line between telling the truth and protecting her. Michael Cullen is blustery yet caring as Sgt. Maj. Clayton Williams, who is willing to admit he at first opposed women in the corps but has evolved; his personal connection to Caine and her father surely had something to do with it.
That leaves dynamic performances by Margarita Levieva (Ginsberg), Flor De Liz Perez (Caine; both left) and Kally Duling (PFC Ellen Colessio). Despite the sappy reference to Emile Zola in her character’s name, Levieva’s Ginsberg is dogged, spirited and kind, despite her client’s refusal to cooperate. She fleshes out Ginsberg’s back story in a matter of fact manner, not currying pity from Caine or the audience, but her personal connection to Stone—just as Caine has to Williams—sounds a bit too pat, too coincidental to be believable. Perez portrays Caine as a “Marine’s Marine,” unbending, scrupulously following regulations, sure she didn’t make a mistake about the tide and full of shame at having caused the deaths of her recruits. At times unlikeable, Perez’s Caine becomes more human as the trial progresses, so that we ultimately root for a verdict in her favor. And Duling is resentment personified as PFC Colessio, a recruit on the receiving end of Caine’s religious application of Marine regulations. As she goes after Caine under cross examination, she loses our sympathy, which makes her change of heart after learning more about her drill instructor all the more satisfying.
James Youmans is to be lauded for his scenic and media design. The use of screens and projections to change scenery makes for smooth transitions that might otherwise be distracting. Jason Lyons’ lighting design enhances the atmosphere, as does the original music and sound design by Scott Killian. (Right: John Bolger, Melissa Maxwell, and Julia Brothers)
The premise for The Trial of Donna Caine is timely and relevant, especially when we are involved in a 17-year-long war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The two coincidences I noted are annoying but do not really affect the plot or outcome of the drama. Perhaps, as the run proceeds, the actors will settle into their roles and give more convincing performances. That I was blindsided by the revelatory disclosure is, I think, because the involved actors spoke so quickly that I missed its initial hint.
If you love courtroom dramas, you’ll probably enjoy The Trial of Donna Caine. A respectable addition to the genre, it will engender discussion about the recent decision to open military combat positions to women.
The Trial of Donna Caine will be performed at George Street Playhouse’s temporary location at 103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick, through November 11. For information and tickets, call the box office at 732.246.7717 or visit www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org online.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson