Declaim Game: Lincoln and Douglas point fingers, match wits.

An awkward stringbean of a man, stumbling over his chair and spilling cribsheets from his hat, the Great Emancipator would need a red rubber nose and clown makeup to be less prepossessing at the outset of The Rivalry, Norman Corwin’s 1958 historatorical drama. Oh sure, Honest Abe had right on his side in the slavery debates chronicled in the play, but he’s such a goof as portrayed by a loose-limbed, rumpled, forever laughing-at-his-own-jokes Robert Parsons that it’s hard to imagine how he could match unflappable states’ righter Stephen A. Douglas (Rick Foucheux). The year is 1858, and as they begin the string of joint public appearances that will define their race for an Illinois senate seat (upstart Lincoln failed to unseat the incumbent Douglas), the debates qualify as a hopeless mismatch between a national political figure noted for his elocutionary gifts, and a country lawyer only just developing a reputation for sardonic wit. Douglas is cool and practiced, Lincoln haltingly inept. With both history and the angels firmly on Lincoln’s side, you expect him to score at least a few points, but as he makes semantic distinctions between “the existence of slavery and the extension of slavery,” while Douglas argues passionately for the right of states to determine their own destinies, you all but lose hope. As an authorial strategy, this is cagey, of course, as is having Douglas’ wife Adele (an appealing Sarah Zimmerman) on hand to offer helpful expository tidbits. Lincoln spends much of the first act not on the ethical and human rights points that are his strength but protesting attempts to paint him as a radical. Douglas, meanwhile, dodges questions of morality almost entirely. This has the effect of allowing Parsons’ Lincoln to evolve, gradually staking out the moral high ground, while his opponent is forced increasingly into ethical corners. Mark Ramont’s briskly efficient staging is not nearly as diorama-esque as you’d expect. And it lands quite a few moments in freshly intriguing ways. As when, for instance, Douglas notes gently that if Lincoln’s views were to prevail, blacks would not only be able to vote but might well become candidates, even for senator (he lets the notion hang in the air a moment). Knowing his audience in 1858, the real Douglas needed go no further. And at The Rivalry’s premiere a century later, it’s safe to say that Corwin knew his audience, too, with Brown v. Board of Education barely settled, “I have a dream” as yet undreamt, and not one black senator having served since Reconstruction some 70 years earlier. But of course, times change, as do racial politics. On opening night at Ford’s last Wednesday, the audience couldn’t help hearing the moment somewhat differently, knowing that at that very moment, a Lincoln successor was addressing a joint session of Congress about the state of a still-fractious union.

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