The Rivalry by Norman Corwin. Directed by Laura Margolis.
"The eclipse of any living man."
Norman Corwin’s 1959 stage play "The Rivalry," originally in two acts, is being given an excellent and timely production at Stageworks Hudson in downtown Hudson, N.Y. Not, as you might suspect from the title, a romantic comedy, this is a play about the political conflicts between Abraham Lincoln and senatorial incumbent Stephen A. Douglas. If asked, most people today would tell you that Lincoln won the debates; he is the greater figure of the two men. However, this is not the case and the Douglas’s heavily prejudiced point of view won the day over Lincoln more egalitarian stance.
All of this took place in 1858, just a few years before Lincoln would stand for the Presidency and win. Douglas died in 1861. The Civil War would resolve the ideological complications that divided these two men. It is fitting, somehow, that this debate would take center stage during the month of Presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, opening only two days after the first televised confrontation between the two contemporary figures. That debate was tame and stilted, but in the 1850s, as playwright Corwin shows us, things were different: no moderator, fewer rules, more honest combat between two very intelligent men who neither stumble, mumble or post-debate grumble about their treatment. I would say that this is the debate to watch.
When the play was first produced on Broadway it had champion written all over it. Produced by Cheryl Crawford; directed by the author; incidental music by David Amram; Maurice Peress leading the onstage band; Costumes by Motley, and lighting by Tharon Musser; it starred Richard Boone as Lincoln, Martin Gabel as Douglas and Nancy Kelly as his wife Adele Douglas. However, even with this sort of company and with Corwin’s skills with the typewriter the play only lasted 81 performances but even so it never drifted into obscurity.
The company in Hudson is not so stellar but is not any less compelling. Kurt Rhoads plays Lincoln. His credits include major roles in regional theaters all around the country and a Broadway appearance in "Julius Caesar" starring Denzel Washington. Stephen Paul Johnson portrays Douglas. Another active regional actor he has been seen frequently on various "Law and Order" shows. Susannah Jones has also worked extensively on the regional Shakespeare circuit.
Corwin brings us the story from the perspective of Adele Douglas, widow of Stephen A. Douglas, although there is nothing in this production that gives us that particular sense of her.
Jones is straightforward in both her narratives and her interactive scenes. Adele, as she sees her, is a woman who pulls no punches and shoots from the hip if necessary. What we discover about her, first and foremost, is her remarkable loyalty to her husband despite her clear admiration for Lincoln and for this country’s future under his care. In two specific scenes with the future President Jones plays her role perfectly, coy and feminine and yet strong and in charge of herself and of the meeting itself. She is a corporate head-hunter-type in an era that didn’t have them. Jones allows the flirtatious side of Adele onto the playing fields here and at the same time is both understandingly withdrawn from her husband’s issues and randomly silly with him when he needs her there with him, but not to listen to her. There are deep challenges in this role and Jones is definitely up to them.
Johnson has the awkward and careful role of Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas doesn’t want to be at this point in his life and Johnson knows just how to act that uncomfortable sense of himself. His performance is studied and humorous and full of minor character details in the false moments of security that he exhibits. The actor here takes very special care to explore the realities of the man he portrays. He shows us flaws in his basic character with equal flare as he employs the bombastic rhetoric of Douglas to explode the myths of sanity that still perpetuate. This is a man with a mission that cannot be accomplished and I don’t mean Douglas’ firm belief in the differences between the races and maintaining the "proper" order of things in the relationship of blacks and whites. Johnson’s version of Douglas is centered on his vision of defeating his stronger rival, no matter the cost to himself. He plays this very well indeed.
Kurt Rhoads takes his Lincoln up a notch by simply soft-pedaling the man. His Lincoln never flies off the handle. He never explodes over injustice. He is, like Barack Obama on last Wednesday night’s debate, the sensible calm at the center of the storm that surrounds him. He has two scenes with Adele Douglas that are movingly quiet and sensible. He presents the antithesis of sexual awareness and so subtly exploits a relationship that can never exist, not even in the mind of her narrative sense.
Laura Margolis has done a wonderful job of putting these people on her stage. Works like these, which take a narrative stance too often and too far, can be tricky and this director is never tricked into complacency. She handles the impossible with the ease of the plausible. There is not one misstep in this production with its pleasant costumes by Maureen Schell, a sensible and well focused lighting design and set design by Rita Carver and a well-used minimal sound design by Byron Nilsson.
All in all, if you are political and find the televised debates to be boring or stagy or just a bit too pat, there is an option for you in The Rivalry. If you like the dynamics of good stageplay and can handle the intellectual arguments in this political extremity, there is also an option for you here. If you just like a good serious play, don’t miss this one. It’s better than its reputation and for good reason: it is good theater. Like politics can be, if you cast it correctly.