The Trial of Donna Caine

The Trial of Donna Caine

Margarita Levieva and Flor De Liz Perez

George Street Playhouse’s 2018-19 season opens with a military courtroom drama directed by the theater’s long-time artistic director, David Saint. Opening night for this world premiere production was October 19, and it runs through Veterans Day, November 11. That date is appropriate, as the play deals with many issues of military hierarchy and justice.

Inspired by actual events from 1956, playwright and former Parade magazine editor Walter Anderson has adapted a story of the tragic incident in which several Marine recruits died in a nighttime exercise gone wrong. He’s brought the action up to the modern day and interwoven it with themes related to the place of women in the Marines, where male and female recruits are thrown together in the crucible of basic training.

In the play two people are determined that co-ed basic training will work: Lt. Colonel Sandra Eden (played by Julia Brothers) and the former Secretary of the Navy who authorized the program, Roy Gill (John Bolger). But when Staff Sergeant Donna Caine (Flor De Liz Perez) leads her platoon into the South Carolina swamp and a rising tide drowns five of them, their reactions differ greatly. Eden works to befriend Caine, who, by all accounts, is a fine Marine and an exemplary drill sergeant; Gill wants to prove the episode is solely the fault of Caine, not a reflection of the training protocol he promulgated. He feels so strongly that he gets himself appointed the prosecutor in Caine’s civilian trial. (I don’t recommend seeing this with any lawyers; they are likely to be squirming in their seats with objections to various problems that strike at the story’s believability.)

Caine is a difficult defendant, prickly and rigid. She takes all responsibility for the tragedy and is almost paralyzed with grief and self-recrimination. Her lawyer, Emily Zola Ginsberg (Margarita Levieva), tells her there is a big difference between “feeling guilty and being guilty.” While it appears the story is going to tackle the co-ed training head on, it never arrives at any conclusion. In fact, the plot is resolved with a kind of investigatory deus ex machina.

This obviates the need for a final “summation for the jury” that establishes a kind of moral order and has made classics out of courtroom dramas like Judgment at Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind, or To Kill a Mockingbird. I missed that, and the play misses it, because while we are told throughout what brilliant lawyer Ginsberg is, we never get to see it.

Melissa Maxwell, who plays the presiding judge in the case, is terrific. Of all the players, she inhabits her role most completely and comfortably. Others in the cast are Ginsberg’s law partner, Vincent Stone (Peter Frechette), defense counsel sounding-board Sergeant Major Clayton Williams (Michael Cullen), private first class Ellen Colessio (Kally Duling), and Ryan George as Gunnery Sergeant Jacob Jasper Walker. He plays an awkward role as Caine’s immediate supervisor (and we find out, fiancé), called to testify against her. Wouldn’t the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s prohibitions against fraternization make such a relationship problematic? No such difficulties are acknowledged.

George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick is being rebuilt. In the meantime, its productions are mounted at its interim home, 103 College Farm Road in New Brunswick. Tickets available from the online box office, or call 732-246-7717.

*****His Bloody Project

Scottish Policeman - 1882

Original photo, c. 1882 by Peter Swanson, reproduced by Dave Conner, creative commons

By Graeme Macrae Burnet, narrated by Antony Ferguson. This remarkable faux “true-crime” thriller was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and an immersive, inventive fable it is. The conceit is that the author, in researching his family history, uncovers a 17-year-old relative named Roderick Macrae, who in 1869 stood trial in Inverness, Scotland, in a notorious triple murder case. In trying to get to the bottom of this episode, the author has assembled a variety of original documents. He presents this evidence, and the reader must weigh it along with the court.

After some prefatory remarks, the story picks up steam in the longest section of the book, a confession written by Roddy himself. Opinion at the time, the author notes, held it was entirely unlikely that a barely educated crofter, living in desperately reduced circumstances, could write such a literate account of himself and his life.

Roddy freely admits he committed the murders. The nub of the case is whether he was in his right mind when doing so and whether the then rather new insanity defense is appropriate. His victims were Lachlan Mackenzie, the autocratic and vindictive constable of the area, who seems, for various reasons and an inherent meanness, intent on breaking apart the Macrae family; Mackenzie’s 15-year-old daughter Flora, whom Roddy has gone walking with a few times and hopes to romance; and Mackenzie’s three-year-old son Danny.

In describing life in the tiny, poverty-struck village of Culduie, Roddy’s memoir recounts a great many petty tyrannies visited on the family by Mackenzie, which might (or might not) be sufficient motivation for murder. Since Roddy’s mother died in childbirth, the Macrae family has lurched through life, bathed in grief and laid low by privation. From Roddy’s confession as well as other testimony, readers gain a detailed picture of daily life and the knife-edge on which survival depends. Fans of strong courtroom dramas will relish the way the courtroom scenes in the book both reveal and conceal.

The audiobook was narrated by Antony Ferguson. He gives sufficient variety to the speech of the characters to make them both easily identifiable and compelling individuals, from the engaging Roddy to the condescending psychiatrist and prison doctor, whom author Burnet based on the real-life J Bruce Thomson, to the ostensibly straightforward journalistic accounts.

The format of this book makes it unusual in crime fiction. It is a more literary version of the dossier approach used by Dennis Wheatley, in such classics as Murder Off Miami and The Malinsay Massacre, which our family loved to read and solve.

**Without Fear or Favor

NYCity  police officer

photo: scubacopper, creative commons license

By Robert K. Tanenbaum – Among many other legal posts, Tanenbaum has been a prosecutor, an Assistant District Attorney, has taught law, and served two terms as mayor of Beverly Hills, California. This book-jacket terms him “a New York Times bestselling author,” although many readers have learned that doesn’t necessarily mean what we think it does. This is the 29th book in the long-running series of legal thrillers featuring New York City District Attorney Roger “Butch” Karp and his wife, investigator Marlene Ciampi. How could one man do all that? Easy. He didn’t.

In a rather notorious (in writing circles) revelation in 2003, Tanenbaum’s cousin, Michael Gruber revealed he had ghostwritten the “bestselling author’s” novels, the two had parted ways, and he was pursuing his own writing career. Followed by a rather inexpert successor, the quality of Tanenbaum’s books reportedly suffered, then for a while it appeared more skilled hands were at the computer keyboard. I knew none of this when I read Without Fear or Favor, but Tanenbaum’s hunt for a good ghostwriter should continue.

The new novel tells the story of a white cop murdered by a black militant who uses the nom de guerre, Nat X. Nat X proclaims that there’s a war on black people, and cops are the enemy. He does murder a policeman early in the story, then entices a teenager to shoot another one, and the remainder of the book is about bringing him to justice.

In some respects, this book is the antithesis of Don Winslow’s The Force, also about black-white relations in New York City as they collide within the criminal justice system. In Winslow’s book, corruption is rampant; in Tanenbaum’s, aside from three vigilante cops, duly punished, the police, the investigators, and the prosecutors are models of probity. Their solid ideals are revealed in unrealistic lengthy statements, more like essays than realistic conversations.

If these editorial opinions were confined to one or two characters, you might accept that they reflect a particular character’s point of view and bombastic communications style, but they also appear in the narration, which becomes indistinguishable from the characters’ “good citizenship” and “flaws in the system” lectures.

In addition to constant editorializing, the writer has a bad habit of introducing a bolus of superficial backstory every time a new character is introduced. It doesn’t explore the individual at all, and you’re left to apply whatever assumptions you may have about someone described as a product of “only the finest prep schools.”

Unsurprisingly, the story is loaded with clichés and stereotyped and cardboard characters. Perhaps most puzzling are the courtroom scenes of Nat X’s trial. I wonder whether Tanenbaum even read them. The defense attorney is not a worthy adversary for protagonist Karp, which greatly undercuts the tension of the trial. Not to mention that her deceptive behavior might well subject her to an ethics investigation.

Instead, How About . . .

If you like legal thrillers, you may find more believable courtroom drama in Steve Cavanagh’s The Liar or The Plea or Brad Parks’s recent Say Nothing. Or, come to Richardson Auditorium on October to hear John Grisham, Wednesday October 25, 2017, 4:30 p.m. Tickets on sale at the Auditorium website at noon October 19.