“The Trial of Donna Caine,” currently making its world premiere at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, is inspired by a real incident: A 1956 Marine training exercise gone wrong in Parris Island, S.C., in which six recruits drowned. It’s also inspired, though, by TV courtroom shows, in which one-dimensional characters clash until the heroic lawyer has an “aha” moment, figures out what really happened, and everything is resolved tidily.
It’s got a bristling energy to it and will hold your attention, as those kinds of TV shows do. But don’t expect a lot of depth.
Playwright Walter Anderson (best known as the longtime editor-in-chief of Parade magazine) originally intended “The Trial of Donna Caine” as a “docudrama” of what happened in ’56, but changed his mind. Among other modifications, he moved the story to the present, changed the staff sergeant on trial from a man to a woman, changed the six male recruits who died to three women and two men, and made one of the key plot twists involve a computer.
Part of his intention seems to have been to make this an “issue play,” addressing the ever controversial subject of women in the military. But this issue is merely touched on, rather than fully explored. He also brings politics into play via the character of prosecutor Roy Gill (John Bolger), a smooth-talking slimeball who may be more concerned with enhancing his chances for a White House job than in searching for true justice in the courtroom.
The central relationship in the play, though, is between the ramrod-straight Marine Donna Caine (Flor De Liz Perez), who is unflinchingly willing to pay the price for her tragic mistake, and idealistic, hard-working lawyer Emily Zola Ginsberg (Margarita Levieva), who wants to provide a defense that Caine herself isn’t sure she deserves. They form a strong bond; despite coming from extremely different worlds, the are mirror images of one another.
Other characters include Melissa Maxwell as the forceful, frequently exasperated Judge Easton; Michael Cullen as Clayton Williams, a gruff, grizzled sergeant major; and Peter Frechette as Emily’s older, more cynical associate, “radical lawyer” Vincent Stone, whose laidback manner and playful wisecracks come as a welcome relief as the tense, grim story unfolds.
Costume designer Brian C. Hemesath appropriately sticks to the basics: military uniforms and conservative business suits. Scenic designer James Youmans uses a lot of gray, with uncomfortable-looking chairs and small, institutional desks creating a purposely unwelcoming atmosphere. The production, overall, has a stark, no-nonsense feel.
The actors and director David Saint make the most of the material. But the play itself is little more than a standard potboiler, and there is no way to overcome that.
“The Trial of Donna Caine” is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through Nov. 11. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.