Three of the five Marine recruits drowned during exercises at boot camp at Paris Island, South Carolina, are women. Though their drill instructor, the person at the center of the “The Trial of Donna Caine,” 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 says repeatedly and is reluctant to accept the not-guilty plea proposed by lawyers asked to take on the case by a judge whose grandson was one of the victims.
The former marine judge has pressed New York lawyers Emily Zola Ginsberg (Margarita Levieva) and Vincent Stone (Peter Frechette) into taking the case to get all the facts. And with the Pentagon attempting 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 Marine recruits, the play follows the course set by similar court-room dramas involving the military such as “A Few Good Men” and “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.” The play relies on testimonies, disclosures, revelations, rebuttals, and provocative witnesses and probing lawyers to keep us glued to our seats.
A former marine sergeant and Vietnam veteran, Anderson was editor-in-chief for 20 years of Parade magazine and has ranged 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 than the obligatory surprises and revelations are the interesting cast of characters who appear before a no-nonsense court judge (a very fine Melissa Maxwell).
As the title character Flor De Liz Perez presents a hard-as-nails exterior whose rigid body-language has been the natural progression for the career she has chosen. That her exterior melts in the presence of Sgt. Jacob Jasper Walker (Ryan George) with whom she is romantically linked is not a subtle detour in the plot during the proceedings. And an argument could be made on why the playwright has opted for another key character, Pvt. Ellen Colessio, as grittily portrayed by Kally Duline, 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. Col. 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 old school Sgt. Maj. 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 classic Hollywood actor Victor McLaglen in John Ford-directed military or western epics.
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 U.S. 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.
The Trial of Donna Caine, George Street Playhouse, 103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick. Through November 11. $44 to $68. 732-246-7717 or www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.