Monday, June 1, 2009

The Rivalry

Norman Corwin's play The Rivalry, a revival of which is at the Irish Repertory Theatre through July 5, is more than just a compelling history lesson about the Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates of 1858. It is a commentary on race in America that, unfortunately, is still quite relevant.

No politician today would so blatantly -- and publicly -- talk about the importance of preserving racial purity as Democratic incumbent Douglas did in battling Lincoln, his Republican challenger, to hold onto his U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. It’s startling to hear him defend slavery -- and to know he won that contest. But our country is still polarized along racial lines, as the recent Supreme Court nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor makes evident. Director Vincent Dowling has chosen an appropriate play to mark the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.

Corwin’s text of the debates derives from the stenographic record. Slavery, and whether it should be allowed in new territories and states, was the most volatile issue, with Lincoln proposing the matter should be left up to the individual states and Douglas maintaining slavery should be kept uniformly across the country.

I was disappointed by the amateurish performances in the first act, but the actors rose to the occasion in the second as the debates grew more heated. Christian Kaufman (right in photo) portrays Lincoln, Peter Cormican is Douglas, Mary Linda Rapelye is Douglas’ wife, Adele, who also serves as an occasional narrator of the play, and Doug Stender is a Republican committeeman.

The Rivalry was performed on Broadway in 1959, another important time to consider race relations as the civil rights movement was beginning to stir. Playwright Corwin was actually more widely known, though, in another medium, one that earned him the title of America’s “poet laureate of the radio” for the powerful programs he wrote and produced in the 1930s and 40s, including President Franklin Roosevelt’s celebration of the Bill of Rights at the beginning of World War II. Corwin returned to that medium in the 1990s with a series of programs written and directed for National Public Radio that feature such prominent actors as Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn and Charles Durning.

The creative team for The Rivalry includes set designer Eugene D. Warner, costume designer Rosi Zingales, lighting designer Brian Nason, sound designer Zachary Williamson and original sound designer Walter Mantani.

Tickets for The Rivalry may be purchased by calling (212) 727-2737 or at the Irish Rep box office, 132 W. 22nd St., between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. For more information visit

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