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A CurtainUp NJ Review
The Trial of Donna Caine
Look, this thing's on me. But...for the record: the so-called gender initiative is a train wreck — Donna Cain
Margarita Levieva, Melissa Maxwell, John Bolger (photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)
Three of the five Marine recruits drowned during exercises at boot camp at Paris Island, South Carolina are women. Although their drill instructor, Staff Sergeant Donna Caine (Flor De Liz Perez) claims she believed that the section of the Creek used for the specific exercise was at low tide, she is also adamant about her guilt. "I'm responsible" she repeats more than once and is reluctant to accept the not-guilty plea proposed by the two New York lawyers who have been asked to take on the case by a Judge whose grandson was one of the victims.

A former Marine, the Judge (unseen) presses into action two New York lawyers Emily Zola Ginsberg (Margarita Levieva) and Vincent Stone (Peter Frechette) to take the case to get all the facts. He wants to get to the bottom while the pentagon attempts to white-wash the event. The stage has been set for an engrossing, if somewhat predictable, court room drama by Walter Anderson now having its world premiere at the George Street Playhouse.

Inspired by the real-life events surrounding a training mishap in 1956 that resulted in the drowning deaths of six US Marine recruits, The Trial of Donna Caine follows the course set by similar court-room dramas involving the military such as A Few Good Men and The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. It relies on testimonies, disclosures, revelations and rebuttals and certainly provocative witnesses and probing lawyers to keep us glued to our seats. A former Marine sergeant and Vietnam veteran, Anderson's credits include being editor-in-chief for twenty years of Parade magazine and range from novelist to performer to playwright. His play Almost Home , about a returning Vietnam veteran premiered Off Broadway in 2014.

Curiously what keeps our attention more that the obligatory surprises and revelations that may either confirm or disprove the so-called evidence and/or allegations are the interesting cast of characters who appear before a no-nonsense court Judge (a very fine Melissa Maxwell). Staff Sergeant Donna Caine presents a hard-as-nails exterior whose rigid body-language has been the natural progression for the career she has chosen.

That Caine's exterior melts in the presence of Gunnery Sergeant Jacob Jasper Walker (Ryan George) with whom she is romantically linked is not a subtle detour in the plot during the proceedings. An argument could be made on why the playwright has opted for another key character Private First Class Ellen Colessio, as grittily portrayed by Kally Duling, to further underline the image of a strong woman in the military.

On the other hand, Julia Brothers who plays the overtly supportive and curiously warm Lt. Colonel Sandra Eden, gives us pause to ponder her true motive in her unwavering defense of Caine and her abilities. And what if anything is Eden's connection to the tragic event that hinges on the regular display board that notes high and low tides in the Creek. It is no secret that the prosecutor Roy Gill (John Bolger) has his eye on a guilty verdict to gain political leverage and the prospects of a White House appointment.

The play's most engaging character witness turns out to be an old school Marine Sergeant Major Clayton Williams who makes a good case both for and against women in the Marines. This winning performance by Michael Cullen will remind some of the hard-nosed but soft-hearted character played by Victor McLaglen in many a John Ford directed military or western epic.

Some anti-Semitism rears up briefly with Levieva referred to as the "Jew lawyer from New York." The exchanges between her and her boss Vincent are indicative of a relationship based on a long and rewarding mentorship. Levieva comports herself with the assurance of a well-trained attorney. As Vincent, veteran actor Peter Frechette gets off to a tenuous start but eventually becomes a tenacious Clarence Darrow-like figure in the final scenes of the play.

Tension builds as it should under the controlled direction of David Saint who keeps the action moving almost cinematically from scene to scene. Some might quibble that the payoff or final revelation is a trifle weak and not especially surprising. Still, I found myself responding to the fine performances and to a play that postures its positions effectively, or as the Marines might say with esprit de corps.

Technically the production is first rate with kudos to scenic and media designer James Youmans for handsome projections that takes us to various locations in and outside the courtroom.

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The Trial of Donna Caine By Walter Anderson Directed by David Saint

Cast: Margarita Levieva (Emily Zola Ginsberg), Peter Frechette (Vincent Stone), Flor De Liz Perez (Staff Sergeant Donna Caine) Julia Brothers (Lt. Colonel Sandra Eden), John Bolger (Roy Gill), Michael Cullen (Sergeant Major Clayton Williams), Ryan George (Gunnery Sergeant Jacob Jasper Walker), Melissa Maxwell (Judge Easton), Kally Duling (Private First Class Ellen Colessio)
Scenic and Media Design: James Youmans
Costume Design: Brian C. Hemesath
Lighting Design: Jason Lyons
Original Music/Sound Design: Scott Killian
Production Manager: Christopher J. Bailey
Production Stage Manager: Nicole Kuker
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission.
George Street Playhouse, 103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick, N.J.
(732) 246 - 7717 or
From 10/16/18 Opened 10/19/18 Ends 11/11/18
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/19/18

NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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