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The Rivalry

Vincent Dowling's production of Norman Corwin's 1959 play about the Lincoln-Douglas debates proves the work is best heard on radio. logo
Mary Linda Rapelye and Christian Kauffmann
in The Rivalry
(© Rick Teller)
Fifty years ago, Norman Corwin -- the now 99-year-old "poet laureate of radio"-- crafted excerpts from the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 into a playscript titled "The Rivalry" that enjoyed a modest run on Broadway. However, Vincent Dowling's production of this rather antiquated work at the Irish Repertory Theatre only proves that what might have worked as a viable drama a half-century ago now emerges as something custom made for the disembodied medium of radio.

As a live performance, The Rivalry leaves a lot to be desired -- such as any significant action. Apart from the opponents (played by Christian Kauffmann and Peter Comincan) taking turns at the podium, the sight of Mrs. Douglas (Mary Linda Rapelye) mending her husband's vest is about as lively as it gets.

Her role as gracious helpmeet is also likely to rankle contemporary sensibilities. Despite Rapelye's considerable warmth and charm in the role (in both costume and deportment, she resembles a period lithograph), Mrs. Douglas has too obviously been added to the proceedings as a device to pry open the play -- adding a few fictive departures from the stenographic record -- and to provide a personal touch. While Douglas is busy conducting a crash course in hate speech, she's standing by to give us a glimpse of this particular racist's tender side -- a rather repellent gilding, given the context.

Cormican plays the "Little Giant" -- Douglas' political sobriquet -- far too hammily, as if addressing a real-life crowd numbering in the thousands, not the few score huddled in the small theater space. (And the ill-advised insertion of canned applause at strategic junctures makes the audience feel superfluous in any case.) Conversely, Kauffmann is a very believable Lincoln, offering folksy stories as prelude to powerful feats of rhetoric. It's a truly lovely portrayal that could soar in a more nuanced, three-dimensional setting.

It helps not there's no suspense to the outcome; we all know that Douglas won this local political round, only to be trounced by Lincoln (who benefited from the exposure) two years later on the national level. So while you don't have to contemplate the ending, The Rivalry may leave you pondering the elements required for effective stage drama.

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