The Few. The Proud. The Marines. The Murderers?

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, The Trial of Donna Caine

Something went terribly wrong on the night that rough, tough staff sergeant Donna Caine, a seasoned drill instructor, led her regiment of U.S. Marines on a march through a tidal swamp at Parris Island, South Carolina, to bring the discordant group a little discipline. Five of them, two men and three women, died. It was a tragedy covered by CNN and other networks, focused national attention on Caine and the Corps and damaged the defense Department’s program to further integrate women into the Corps.

The Marines court martialed Caine and her prospects looked grim. Then, suddenly, two crackerjack lawyers were brought in to defend Caine by the grandfather of one of the troops killed. What followed is an intense, winding, twisting fictional courtroom drama, The Trial of Donna Caine, by Walter Anderson, full of heroes and villains, with Caine’s future, and that of the Corps, on the line. The striking play, that opened Saturday at the George Street Playhouse, in New Brunswick, N.J., is up there with the military court room film A Few Good Men, starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. The Trial of Donna Caine is that good.

At the start of the play, smartly directed by David Saint, it appears that Sgt. Caine is guilty. She admitted that she took her men into the tidal basin to bring about unity and misread weather reports. She even had a few sips of a beer with a friend in the Marines prior to the night exercises. Everybody said she did it. So she did it, right?

Not necessarily so. Her lawyers and friends in the Marines dig for information, a really sassy judge tries to help her and the prosecutor and a former State Department official with big political ambitions, starts to make mistakes. Is there something or somebody lurking in the shadow of the Parris Island Marine Corps camp that could help her?

Sgt. Caine is a downright hard, cold nasty officer who does nothing to help her case. Her lawyers, Vincent Stone and his assistant, Emily Ginsberg, who has led a hard life herself, try to befriend Sgt. Caine with no success. Prosecutor Roy Gill hates her. And she admits that she did it.

The play twists and turns in delicious fashion and you never know if Sgt. Caine is guilty or not – until the final minute of the drama. Playwright Anderson has created wonderful, deep characters who continually vie for the attention of the Judge and the audience.

Everybody knows how tough Marine drill instructors are and Caine is one of the toughest. She is by the book all the way. She actually wants to plead guilty just to maintain the image of the Marine Corps.

She looks guilty, despite testimony on her behalf by Lt. Colonel Sandra Eden, a woman who quickly earns the trust and admiration of the audience. There is testimony from Sergeant Major Clayton Williams, a friend of her dad’s. All of her character witnesses have to bow their heads at the end of their time on the stand, though, and admit that she was drinking, she misread the tidal charts and she killed five marines.

But there is always another twist. Why was it that Lt. Colonel Eden knew some highly placed government officials, to whom she told everything about the deaths in late night phone calls? Why does prosecutor Gill mercilessly harass Caine?

The strength of the play is that you never know what is going to happen next and that you just can’t believe that Sgt. Caine screwed up on this deadly night march. What was she thinking? It makes no sense.

Anderson based his play on an actual training disaster. It happened at Parris Island in 1956 and was named the Ribbon Creek Incident. A drill instructor, male, in an effort to give his men more unity, made them take a similar night hike through the swamps. Six drowned. A number of marines, some pretty famous, testified that drill instructors routinely punished their men that way. The deaths caused an uproar in the country and changed training rules.

The play has a lot of history in it. The Ribbon Creek incident is not mentioned in the drama, but there is a lot of dialogue about Marine training and the history of women in the Marines and how they have, and have not, gotten along with the men in the Corps. You learn about post World War II marines and how their rules have changed over the years. At one point, the Sergeant Major is asked a flurry of questions about the readiness of women as Marines and he keeps answering yes. Women do everything the male marines do, and they can take combat jobs, too, although only about 100 of our 186,000 marines have done that.

You get a feel for all of that in the play. In the end, you ask whether her high powered lawyers (William Kunstler types) will get her acquitted. Will sassy Judge Easton turn back all the assaults on her by the prosecution? Will not anybody in the Marine Corps hierarchy take her side?

Director Saint does fine work in this play. He gets impressive performances from Peter Frechette as lawyer Stone, Julia Brothers as Colonel Eden, John Bolger as Gill, Michael Cullen as the Sergeant Major, Ryan George as Jacob Walker, Melissa Maxwell as the Judge and Kally Dulling as Private Colessio. Flor De Liz Perez is exceptional as Sgt. Caine and so is Margarita Levieva as lawyer Ginsberg.

The Trial of Donna Caine is a long, hard look at military justice, chicanery and duplicity. It is also a heart warming look at a good Marine who made a mistake and faces life in prison and yet, time and again, tells all that, in spirit, she was there when the American flag was raised at Iwo Jima.

Semper Fi, baby.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the George Street Playhouse. Set Design: James Youmans, Costumes: Brian C. Hemesath, Lighting: Jason Lyons, Sound: Scott Killian. The play is directed by David Saint. It runs through Nov. 11th.

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