Walter Anderson’s “The Trial of Donna Caine” is a swirling tornado that grips you by the lapels from the moment the play begins. When you walk into the current George Street Playhouse (GSP), adjacent to Rutgers’ Cook College campus, you are greeted with the hypnotic undulations of reeds. Wait, isn’t this a military potboiler? The reeds on the screens are mounted on bunker-style concrete that belies the initial Buddhist feel. And when the play begins, you’re hooked from the very beginning.
If you’ve never been to Parris Island, it’s where the raw materials of an elite fighting force, the Marine Corps, begin their training. The journey that young women and young men take under the watchful eyes of their DIs (Drill Instructors) is an annealing fire that separates the few and the proud from those who don’t make the cut. In the course of building an elite team, DI Donna Caine (Flor De Liz Perez) was working on a trust exercise–a night march through Tidal Creek–that is forbidden by regulations, but not uncommon. Five young people drown, and in the wake of tragedy, the trial begins.
Perez’s Caine is determined to take responsibility for what happened under her watch. Consumed by remorse for the families, it is ironically a Judge, who is a member of one of the bereaved families, who throws a lifeline–asking well-known liberal lawyer Vincent Stone (Peter Frechette) and his young law partner Emily Zola Ginsberg (Margarita Levieva) to defend this benighted soul. Considering the left-bent of the team, and the history of Ginsberg’s name, one might expect a trial for treason. Yet the traitor is ultimately not one betraying country, but rather trust. The irony is not lost, in this time we live in.
Caine is not alone and her allies in the Corps seem to rally around her–her Commanding Officer, Lt. Colonel Sandra Eden (Julia Brothers) and her longterm mentor and family friend, Sergeant Major Clayton Williams (Michael Cullen), both career officers, and her co-DI Gunnery Sergeant Jacob Jasper Walker (Ryan George). They all know the pressures, decisions, and difficulties that someone leading a group can face and they all acknowledge it could have happened to anyone. Yet when the trial begins, the mettle of Caine and others, including ourselves, will be tested. When you meet Judge Easton (Melissa Maxwell), she does not suffer fools gladly. John Bolger is former Secretary of the Navy and current prosecutor in the trial, Roy Gill, and he’s ripped right out of the headlines of the Washington Post. Kally Duling, who appeared in last season’s “American Hero” at GSP, has a very different role here as a driven perfectionist PFC, whose world view changes drastically when one small moment gives her the perspective that her detail orientation denies.
Walter Anderson, editor of Parade magazine for decades and a former Marine, has provided an ethical conundrum and the fine acting by this ensemble, with Frechette’s raving Liberal; Brothers, Cullen and Bolger representing the Passion Play of big government; George and Duling as rank and file career soldiers; and the long day’s journey into the future, with Perez and Levieva as equally amazing women, provides a view of a future that may be brighter than we think. Compassion tempers the long arc of justice and the end of the second act poses the question, at what cost is trust.
“The Trial of Donna Caine” runs through November 11 and this is edge of seat, can’t sit still viewing for lovers of justice, so visit www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org
for tickets now!