Stage Two Theatre Company

Adversaries starts out as a sophisticated philosophical inquiry into the nature of justice. But playwright Brent London fails to sustain either his high-minded theme or the originality of the play’s early scenes, and it quickly turns into an old-fashioned mystery, with the protagonist thrust into a crime scene and forced to solve the puzzle in order to restore a sense of order and decency to his life. Before the mystery is solved, unfortunately, Adversaries slips even further, to the level of sappy melodrama (one character actually utters the line “One last smile, Mary. Please”).

The play’s rapid decline isn’t noticeable at first, because it rides the momentum built up in the early scenes. As Adversaries opens, the ghost of Richard Drury, an attorney, confronts the ghost of William Hillyer, a Confederate soldier arrested as a spy just before the end of the Civil War. The two men step back in time to their first meeting, in Hillyer’s jail cell, where the soldier is trying to persuade Drury to represent him.

At first Drury refuses. “I won’t defend a spy,” he says flatly. But then Hillyer reveals that the two have met before. On December 31, 1864, Drury was attending a play at a New York City theater when a fire broke out–one of nine fires set that night in a Confederate attempt to burn down the city. As Drury scrambled toward the exit, he bumped into a bearded man helping a woman escape. Hillyer claims that he was that man, and that he set the fire. Then he says Drury has a professional obligation never to divulge the information.

Drury agrees to represent Hillyer, but he has a hidden agenda–by taking the case, he hopes to uncover enough information to get Hillyer hanged. Drury’s situation puts him at odds with his conscience. On one hand, he believes rules are sacred. “Rules are what civilize us,” he tells Hillyer. “When we eat dinner. When we wait in line at the theater. Or if there comes the need to wage war.” It’s because of his respect for rules that Drury is horrified when Hillyer tries to justify the arson. “If New York had burned, the north would have wanted peace,” Hillyer says. “In the long run, I would have saved lives.”

But Drury also is tempted to break the rules in order to get his own client convicted. “Shouldn’t a man break any rules that break the ultimate rule–that justice be served?” he asks the audience.

So far so good. The two characters are engaged in a gripping conflict, one that has implications for us all. On top of that, things start to get suspenseful when Drury meets a chambermaid who may have seen Hillyer on the night of the fires. The dramatic tension is so high that it takes a while to notice the bottom has dropped out.

The staging of Adversaries by the Stage Two Theatre Company in Waukegan is simple and occasionally effective, but the acting isn’t strong enough to make up for the script’s shortcomings. Richard French is deft in the role of the detective who arrests Hillyer. He’s nasty and intelligent; it’s easy to believe his story that he sized Hillyer up on the train, determined he was a spy, and arrested him as soon as they set foot in New York. Genevieve Elam is utterly believable as Mary Rice, a vulnerable, scorned woman whose burned foot has left a scar on her psyche as well as her skin. Shawn Fitzgerald, though he doesn’t bring much depth to Hillyer, displays all the sass and sarcasm one would expect from a hotheaded young Confederate soldier. David Shiner as Drury, however, turns in a performance so flat and unfocused that he actually seems to draw energy out of each scene he’s in.