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.

Trying: A Play by Joanna Glass

The story of 20th century figure Judge Francis Biddle comes alive in Trying, an engaging play by Joanna McClelland Glass, who was Biddle’s assistant during his last year of life. On stage at the George Street Playhouse through April 8, the play is directed by Jim Jack.

It has an apt title, because the irascible judge was very trying during this period, plagued by illnesses, painful arthritis, and growing infirmities. But he also wanted to finish his memoirs, and Glass (in the play, her character’s name is Sarah) must cajole and persuade and badger him to “try.” She learns to work with the prickly, demanding Biddle, and they develop a strong mutual affection and a relationship that contains a healthy dose of humor.

Biddle was the quintessential “Philadelphia lawyer,” accomplished, educated at elite U.S. institutions and related to or acquainted with a significant number of the country’s patrician leaders. He served numerous posts in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, including as U.S. Solicitor General and U.S. Attorney General.

When the internment of Japanese-Americans was proposed, he initially opposed it, and regretted his later support. (In the play, he expresses this regret and said that episode is where he learned to mistrust the phrase “military necessity.”) He took actions to support African-American civil rights. Perhaps his most notable achievements were as America’s chief judge at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials of leading Nazis. The lobby displays posters with a number of his strong human rights quotations.

Ironically, Glass says in her notes accompanying the play, at the end of his life the two events that preoccupied him were the deaths that robbed him of a young son and his own father when he was six. The lost opportunities to know those two people haunted him.

Even though there are only two actors in the cast, the story clicks right along. Biddle—“81 years old, elegant, sharply cantankerous, and trying to put his life in order”—is played by Philip Goodwin, with increasing frailty of body, but not of spirit, and Cary Zien plays off him well as a sympathetic and energetic young Sarah. The set design conveys the passage of time, with the changing weather and flora outside the window, and though spring arrives and the days grow longer, they are a constant reminder that Biddle’s days are coming to an end.

This is a lovely play, and gives audiences a lot to think about, with respect to the contributions a single person can make—Biddle in his legal career and Glass with her acute perceptions about what constitutes a well-lived life.