“The Trial of Donna Caine” examines honor and responsibility

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The Trial of Donna Caine is presented by the George Street Playhouse
"The Trial of Donna Caine" is presented by the George Street Playhouse. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.
Season opener at George Street Playhouse touches on sexism and racism 

George Street Playhouse, on the Cook College campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, opens its new season with Walter Anderson’s The Trial of Donna Caine. This courtroom drama is not so much a “whodunnit?” as a “why did it?” It touches on sexism and racism in the military, but its main concern is the nature of honor and trust — “esprit de corps” — and ultimate responsibility.

"The Trial of Donna Caine" is presented by the George Street Playhouse. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.
“The Trial of Donna Caine” is presented by the George Street Playhouse. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

The facts of the case are established from the start. Staff Sergeant Donna Caine (Flor De Liz Perez), a drill instructor, led a recruit platoon into a tidal creek during training. Five recruits drowned. Caine assumes responsibility for their deaths and plans to plead guilty at her upcoming trial. Attorney Emily Zola Ginsberg (Margarita Levieva), investigating the case, learns that the antagonistic drill instructor has not had, and will not get, legal representation from the Navy. Emily also finds Donna’s fellow Marines have been instructed not to talk to the press, defense attorneys, or Donna herself. While these reasons make Emily determined to defend Donna, her senior partner and foster father, Vincent Stone (Peter Frechette), wants no part of defending the “Neanderthal-like” Marine drill instructor mindset. Emily’s courtroom opponent is Roy Gill (John Bolger), who pushed through the program to integrate the sexes in training and is bucking for a White House position after an expected quick win in court. During the course of the trial, the defense attorneys feel that someone seemingly on their side is feeding helpful information to the prosecution, but who and why?

"The Trial of Donna Caine" is presented by the George Street Playhouse. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.
“The Trial of Donna Caine” is presented by the George Street Playhouse. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

David Saint’s direction is mostly well-done although the first act feels a little rushed with dialog delivered as though intermission is a deadline to be met. Also, the actors, especially Ms. Perez, seem to have been instructed to give their lines at full volume though they are thoroughly miked, but this might be more the fault of the sound crew than the actors or director. Ms. Perez, Ms. Levieva, and Messrs. Frechette and Bolger give experienced polish to their roles, and the rest of the cast do not fall short in professionalism. Melissa Maxwell lent a welcome touch of humor as the sarcastic, no-nonsense judge presiding over the trial. Various Marine points of view on duty, honor, morale, and responsibility were presented forthrightly by Julia Brothers, Michael Cullen, Kally Duling, and Ryan George.

"The Trial of Donna Caine" is presented by the George Street Playhouse. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.
“The Trial of Donna Caine” is presented by the George Street Playhouse. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

James Youmans has created a spare-looking unit set which, when paired with his media projections and Jason Lyons’ lighting, create all the spaces needed to bring the play to life. Scott Killian’s original music is interesting, especially his use of somewhat discordant and off-key military themes to denote the sense of corps cohesiveness gone awry. In one early scene, sound designer Killian creates a powerful dream recreation of the drowning incident using ambient sounds, the victims’ voices, and music.

"The Trial of Donna Caine" is presented by the George Street Playhouse. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.
“The Trial of Donna Caine” is presented by the George Street Playhouse. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

The Trial of Donna Caine does have its problems. There are plot points that arise only to be left unresolved, and characters who at times become talking points instead of human beings. But it works best in getting its protagonists, Donna and Emily, to earn the trust and respect of each other without having that point reached as if by magic. Slowed down just a little and with volume reduced, this decent play could turn out to be very good. George Street Playhouse’s production of The Trial of Donna Caine is for those who like courtroom drama and those who are interested in the still-evolving resolution of sexual equality in the military.

The Trial of Donna Caine is presented by the George Street Playhouse on the Cook College campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick through November 11, 2018. For tickets and information, visit GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org.