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The Rivalry

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Editorial Review

Ford Theatre's 'The Rivalry': Absorbing account of Lincoln-Douglas debates

By Peter Marks
Saturday, Jan. 30, 2010

If the political bile of 2010 is getting you down, how about sampling the political bile of 1858?

As detailed in "The Rivalry," Norman Corwin's often absorbing account of the celebrated Lincoln-Douglas debates, the discourse of a century-and-a-half ago was every bit as passionate as it is today on the House floor or in the studios of cable news. The difference, it seems, was in the art generated by the heat, in the caliber of the rhetoric that could be fashioned around the issues of the day, and more to the point, around slavery, the most toxic political subject in American history.

The platform for reviving Corwin's drama, which lasted on Broadway for only about two months in 1959, could not be more apt: the stage of Ford's Theatre, where supple actors in the guises of Abraham Lincoln (Robert Parsons) and Stephen A. Douglas (Rick Foucheux) conjure the supercharged air of the seven debates the two politicians conducted across Illinois prior to the Civil War.

You can certainly see, though, why the play would have had trouble catching fire with a Broadway audience. Corwin's approach is studiously measured and scrupulously fair to both Lincoln and Douglas, the Illinois senator Lincoln unsuccessfully sought to unseat. And as the playwright deploys as his narrator Douglas's even-handed wife Adele (a charmingly poised Sarah Zimmerman), he compels an audience to consider the counterbalancing strengths and flaws of each of the combatants.

Adele's seemingly generous nature makes her an agreeable guide, even if her educational foundation-laying can feel intrusive; the instructional aspect of "The Rivalry" puts the brakes on the evening's momentum at times. In other words, the play has its creakily plotted moments. Still, the meaty reenactments of portions of Lincoln's and Douglas's remarks -- the closely followed debates were transcribed in their entirety by newspaper stenographers -- provide an engrossing core for the play. The casting, too, is very fortunate, as Parsons and Foucheux open compelling windows on the personalities of the debaters and the curious, symbiotic bond that evolves between antagonists locked in an organized public quarrel.

Director Mark Ramont elicits from his actors a mature grasp of who these men were. Physically, they look the parts; Parsons, in particular, has the kind of lean, angular frame for Lincoln that conforms to the portraits in our heads. (When he puts on a beard for the final scenes, the resemblance becomes spooky.) He also endearingly evokes the air of the folksy Lincoln we've read about, the one with a healthy sense of irony and an endless well of stories and anecdotes used to bring his cerebral notions down to earth.

Foucheux's Douglas, by contrast, is compact and conceited, the sort of man who could be engaged in a torrid love affair with his own image. Although he'd be the one vindicated electorally, it's clear in "The Rivalry" that the wounds Lincoln inflicted on Douglas's character, as a result of the senator's defense of the right of Southern states to remain slaveholding, were the more severe. As the debates wear on and Lincoln's arguments gain in moral power, Foucheux seems to shrivel before us, his bearing conveying less and less confidence, his gaze losing focus. The play indicates, however, that near the end of his life, Douglas earned back respect when he rallied to the defense of a besieged President Lincoln, as the threat of secession intensified. (Lincoln spoke movingly of his onetime adversary at Douglas's death.)

What's liveliest about "The Rivalry" is the vital organism it creates out of these excerpts of the debates, which were principally concerned with the profound differences between the candidates over slavery. At a time when the goal of most seekers of office seems to be that of college wrestlers -- don't get pinned down -- it's gratifying to travel back and hear these men argue the large points of their clearly delineated disagreements over slavery, whether regarding states' rights, the Dred Scott decision, or even the meaning of "all men are created equal."

Robin Stapley's set design conjures the simple stages in the small Illinois towns on which the men must have gone at it, and by Matthew Richards's skillful lighting, the Ford's box in which Lincoln was shot is tastefully integrated into the proceedings. Costume designer Helen Huang dresses Zimmerman's Adele in those theatrically eye-catching dresses of the period, the ones with the vast balloonlike hoop skirts.

To imagine these debates taking place in districts that would one day send a black man on the path to the presidency turns out to be another of the more buoyant facets of "The Rivalry," a play for history buffs and those who yearn for words that give a lift to the body politic.

By Norman Corwin. Directed by Mark Ramont. Original music and sound, Matthew M. Nielson; wigs, Anne Nesmith; dialects, Leigh Wilson Smiley. About two hours.