Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
also see Susan's review of Mahalia: A Gospel Musical
The Rivalry, now on the historic stage of Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, is not really a play. As a recounting and distillation of the seven debates held in 1858 when upstart Abraham Lincoln (Robert Parsons) challenged incumbent Stephen Douglas (Rick Foucheux) for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois, it's closer to a historic pageant.
While it's certainly possible to turn historic events into gripping theaterInherit the Wind being an obvious exampleplaywright Norman Corwin's work is more educational than dramatic in its goals. He worked extensively from the debate transcripts, setting out the arguments of the time, many of which have contemporary parallels: who makes the decisions, questions of judicial power, the role of the individual and the state in a society, and what matters should be subject to vote.
Douglas, known as the "Little Giant" for his diminutive stature and the large amount of respect he commanded, believed that the legality of slavery was a decision for the voters to make in each individual state; he opposed a federal government that would take this power away from the states and make a blanket change in policy. The tall, gawky Lincoln, on the other hand, argued on the side of natural law: if, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal, then they must have equal rights in all circumstances and places.
Director Mark Ramont lays out the verbal combat on Robin Stapley's minimal set, consisting of a round platform, a few chairs, and the same campaign banners appearing again and again.
While Douglas was actually four years younger than Lincoln, Ramont has chosen to play up the differences in the men's temperaments by casting confident, mature Rick Foucheux as Douglas and awkward, almost boyish Robert Parsons as Lincoln. Corwin has drawn the antagonists' characters with a broad brush: the country-bred Lincoln has a rough sense of humor and enjoys telling stories, while Douglas, a New England native, clings to his rectitude. The third member of the cast is Sarah Zimmerman as Douglas' younger wife Adele, through whose eyes the events unfold.