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'The Rivalry' at Ford's Theatre highlights Lincoln-Douglas debates

By Alex Baldinger
Friday, January 22, 2010; WE36

If today's political debate sounds like a mixtape of braying donkeys and trumpeting elephants, the vintage political oratory on display in "The Rivalry" at Ford's Theatre plays like a recording of opera's greatest hits.

Re-creating portions of the archetypal debates between an upstart Abraham Lincoln and Sen. Stephen Douglas, Norman Corwin's 1959 play, which opens Friday, is an illuminating and occasionally startling portrait of the two men who represented the two sides of the issue that divided the nation.

"No matter what your idea of Lincoln is, it's not going to be me," said Robert Parsons, a 6-foot-4 doppelganger of the then-beardless 49-year-old trial lawyer, before a recent rehearsal. "As soon as I start talking, it's not going to be the sound [audiences] have in their head."

At the time of the debates -- between August and October 1858 -- Lincoln was a little-known Republican attempting to unseat Douglas, the Democratic senator from Illinois, whose Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 gave individual states broader authority to enact slavery. Lincoln vehemently opposed slavery, though to be called an abolitionist at the time was tantamount to political suicide. (Lincoln narrowly lost the 1858 election.)

Lincoln's arguments against slavery reveal a man facing a conflict between his deeply held beliefs and the political realities of the day: "[T]here is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. . . . I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone," he said at the Charleston, Ill., debate.

The apparent hedging -- is that the same man who issued the Emancipation Proclamation? -- gives Parsons the chance to play against the idealized version of Lincoln most Americans know.

"You can really play against that iconic sense of this statuesque man. He had no idea he was going to be on the $5 bill," he said. "I have to believe I'm saying things that are almost revolutionary to certain ears, even though today they would be thought of as racist."

Rick Foucheux plays Lincoln's opponent; Sarah Zimmerman plays Douglas's wife, Adele, whose reminiscences steer the action through pivotal moments from the seven debates.

"I have no assaults to make upon him, other than to trace his course," Douglas declares in a speech adapted from the duo's fourth debate. "This is a contest of principle! Either the radical abolition principles of Mr. Lincoln must be maintained, or the strong, constitutional, national Democratic principles with which I am identified."

"For any actor just to get a chance to work on such heightened oratory like this, this sort of reminds me of why I went into [acting] in the first place," Foucheux said. "The Rivalry" marks the veteran actor's first performance at Ford's Theatre after nearly 25 years of acting in Washington.

At the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the two parties alternated speaking roles, with the first candidate launching into a 60-minute opening statement, followed by a 90-minute response from the opponent; the initial speaker then concluded with a 30-minute rejoinder. At the time, this was the height of entertainment. "The Rivalry's" two-hour running time perhaps reflects 21st-century attention spans.

Today, "the polluted effect of cable television has people talking over one another so often that you get the visceral tension but you don't have intellectual tension," Foucheux said. "I long for a cool, collected explanation of why one side thinks [health-care reform] is good and one side thinks it's bad. Wouldn't it be great for us to be presented with knowledgeable people who let the other get the point across just so that they can refute it in some way?"

The Rivalry Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Friday through Feb. 14. 202-347-4833. http://www.fordstheatre.org. $20-$44.

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