By Victoria Weisfeld
George Street Playhouse’s 2018-19 season opens with a military courtroom drama directed by the theater’s long-time artistic director, David Saint. Opening night for this world premiere production was October 19, and it runs through Veterans Day, November 11. That date is appropriate, as the play deals with many issues of military hierarchy and justice.
Inspired by actual events from 1956, playwright and former Parade magazine editor and CEO Walter Anderson has adapted a story of the tragic incident in which several Marine recruits died in a nighttime exercise gone wrong. He’s brought the action up to the modern day and interwoven it with themes related to the place of women in the Marines, where male and female recruits (“they’re not Marines yet,” one officer says) are thrown together in the crucible of basic training.
In the play two people are determined that co-ed basic training will work: Lt. Colonel Sandra Eden (played by Julia Brothers) and the former Secretary of the Navy who authorized the program, Roy Gill (John Bolger). But when Staff Sergeant Donna Caine (Flor De Liz Perez) leads her platoon into the South Carolina swamp and a rising tide drowns five of them, their reactions differ greatly. Eden works to befriend Caine, who, by all accounts, is a fine Marine and an exemplary drill sergeant; Gill wants to prove the episode is solely the fault of Caine, not a reflection of the training protocol he promulgated. He feels so strongly that he gets himself appointed the prosecutor in Caine’s civilian trial. (I don’t recommend seeing this with any lawyers; they are likely to be squirming in their seats with objections to the various conflicts of interest, violations of law, and courtroom behavior that strike at the story’s believability.)
Caine is a difficult defendant, prickly and rigid. She takes all responsibility for the tragedy and is almost paralyzed with grief and self-recrimination. Her lawyer, Emily Zola Ginsberg (Margarita Levieva), tells her there is a big difference between “feeling guilty and being guilty.” While it appears the story is going to tackle the co-ed training head on, it never arrives at any conclusion. In fact, the plot is resolved with a kind of legal deus ex machina.
This obviates the need for a final “summation for the jury” that establishes a kind of moral order and has made classics out of courtroom dramas like Judgment at Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind, or To Kill a Mockingbird. I missed that, and the play misses it, because while we are told throughout what brilliant lawyer Ginsberg is, we never get to see it.
Melissa Maxwell, who plays the presiding judge in the case, is terrific. Of all the players, she inhabits her role most completely and comfortably. Others in the cast are Ginsberg’s law partner, Vincent Stone (Peter Frechette), defense counsel sounding-board Sergeant Major Clayton Williams (Michael Cullen), private first class Ellen Colessio (Kally Duling), and Ryan George as Gunnery Sergeant Jacob Jasper Walker. He plays an awkward role as Caine’s immediate supervisor (and we find out, fiancé), called to testify against her. Wouldn’t the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s prohibitions against fraternization make such a relationship problematic? Yet no such difficulties are acknowledged.
Large-screen projections are used effectively to change the scene of the barebones set, scenic and media design by James Youmans; lighting by Jason Lyons; costumes by Brian C. Hemesath; sound design by Scott Killian.
George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick is being rebuilt. In the meantime, its productions are mounted at its interim home, 103 College Farm Road in New Brunswick. Tickets available from the online box office, or call 732-246-7717.