REVIEW: 'The Rivalry' at StageWorks, Hudson
By Bob Goepfert
HUDSON — StageWorks in Hudson has earned a reputation for producing bold theater – which is, of course, a term nearly impossible to define. It's especially difficult to call their current production, "The Rivalry" which runs through Oct 21, a bold choice – but it is.
On the surface "The Rivalry" is a historical drama that recreates the pre-Civil War debates of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Remarkably,what might be dry academic theater becomes compelling drama that makes you realize all history is relevant to the present.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates centered on the issue of slavery. The pitted two strong leaders who were on different sides of an important social issue. The result of the debate is well-known – Douglas was reelected to the U.S. Senate and in the next election Lincoln beat Douglas to become president of the United States.
What makes "The Rivalry" contemporary is it shows how an issue about which there can be no compromise can affect the course of history for more than a century. It makes the point that the most divisive political issues are those based on cultural, social and religious customs.
When the debates begin both Lincoln and Douglas see the issue of slavery as a social and moral issue as well as a political problem. As the men continue their state-wide journey their passions and the mood increases in intensity, name calling and character defamation. It soon becomes clear that the issue is no longer slavery but the fate of the Union.
The performers are great in expressing individual convictions and projecting the sincerity of each man's belief. Of course, history gives Lincoln the hero's mantle and Kurt Rhoads portrays Lincoln with great dignity, humor and strength of character.
He creates the Lincoln we honor and respect. More important, Rhoads also creates a Lincoln who is a flesh and blood character. He's a man uncertain about his power, but confident in his views. It is understandable why he would lose the election to the Senate and yet be considered for the presidency.
As Douglas, Stephen Paul Johnson has the unenviable role of playing a man who has to utter bigoted and racist statements. Johnson is able to make Douglas a man of his time who represented the conventional views of the era. Johnson is very good in showing that an unenlightened mind is not necessarily a mind filled with hate. In a nice touch, Douglas is redeemed when as a candidate for the presidency his efforts to preserve the union make him a noble person.
Susannah Jones plays Douglas' wife - Adele. It's a role designed to make both men seems more human and to move along the time-line of the debates. Jones is effective in showing a woman who understands the larger impact of the debates even before the participants.
If you believe that theater is about the importance of discourse - then you should not miss "The Rivalry" at StageWorks in Hudson.
Lincoln, Douglas thunder once more
October 5, 2012
by Michael Eck
HUDSON – There's a hot political debate going on in Hudson right now. It's not for the presidency, or even a local race. It's for the post of Senator from the great state of Illinois, and history hangs in the balance.
Norman Corwin's "The Rivalry" which bowed on Broadway in 1959, is closing the season at Stageworks/Hudson, in a timely production the troupe is calling a Regional Premiere.
The topic of the play is the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates, which were celebrating their 100th anniversary as Corwin's dramatization arrived in New York.
Eventually Lincoln would become president and Douglas would be remembered more for his role as nemesis than as an influential, though controversial, politician in his own right. Corwin — who died last year at 101 — makes both men come alive, and so does this simple, but excellent staging.
Laura Margolis directs the play, wisely placing it on a stage (designed by Rita Carver) reminiscent of a boxing ring. The play, too, comes by in rounds, with brief breaks between distillations of the debates.
Occasionally, townspeople, played by Dean Temple, Everett Goldner and Molly Mermelstein, step into comment on the action, but for the most part the show belongs to Lincoln, Douglas, and quite importantly, Douglas' wife, Adele.
Adele, winsomely portrayed by Susannah Jones, is a sort of guide through the battle. She offers the humanity to Douglas that Lincoln bears on his own. It is also through her that we understand the almost profound changes that her husband goes through in the denouement of the action.
Douglas is played Stephen Paul Johnson, who barks persuasively as the incumbent Democrat. Douglas was a confident fireplug and so is Johnson, who builds up bright steam each time Lincoln opens his mouth.
But these historic figures played by the rules, and so do the actors who give each character room to strut, opine and, eventually, thunder.
Kurt Rhoads seems born to the role of Lincoln, and at times his portrayal is almost spooky. He's perfectly tall next to the (appropriately) shorter Johnson. He exudes a certain deep compassion and his jokes are funny. He is, at least for the night, our vision of Abraham Lincoln.
While the debates are the clear focus here, Margolis is wise to let other action happen underneath. True, the townspeople as audience often seem an adornment, and occasionally a distraction, Adele never does.
The real heart of "The Rivalry" occurs in a beat. Rhoads, as Lincoln, is finally unleashing his moral fury and in the truth of the moment, Jones, as Adele, withers for just a flash, her head tilting back ever so slightly while her eyes flutter heavenward and back in an instant.
Even if we didn't already know the outcome, we could have seen the future (and Douglas' loss and relegation to the footnotes) in that glance.
Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday.
Where: Stageworks/Hudson, 41-A Cross Street, Hudson
Running time: 90 minutes.
Continues: 7:30 Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday 9 (and Oct. 20). Through Oct. 21
Tickets: $24-$29 Info: 822-9667;
Michael Eck is a freelance writer from Albany and a frequent contributor to the Times Union.
By Jeffrey Borak, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Saturday October 13, 2012
Smack in the middle of political debate season, Stageworks/Hudson has its say with "The Rivalry," a play by Norman Corwin that focuses on the granddaddy of all political debates, the 1858 Illinois U.S. Senate race debates -- seven of them in all -- between Republican newcomer Abraham Lincoln, a promising Illinois state legislator and fervent abolitonist, and Democrat incumbent Stephen Douglas, a devoted expansionist and author of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 which repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise and left the issue of slavery to be decided by the newly annexed territories themselves -- an issue that proved the sharpest difference and disagreement between Lincoln and Douglas.
Long before sound bites, social media, television, radio, superficial analyses by pundits, and poll-driven campaigns, the Lincoln-Douglas debates took the measure of two men of deep conviction and principles who brought their argument directly to the people without filters, character assassination, half truths or glib shapeshifting calculated to satisfy whatever public mood was floating in the wind. Imagine! Honest men of honest conviction debating honestly contrasting principles of governance. What a concept!
"The Rivalry," which draws heavily on material from the debates -- Lincoln lost that election but drew enough national attention that he defeated Douglas for the presidency only two years later -- is told from the viewpoint of Douglas' wife, Adele (a quietly engaging Susannah Jones), from a perspective of time after her husband's death. And while Lincoln (played by Kurt Rhoads with modest reassurance and conviction) shares equal time with Douglas in the debates, in terms of the play's dramatic architecture, he often seems straight man to the somewhat more complex Douglas, played with balance and understanding by Stephen Paul Johnson.
Laura Margolis' direction is clean, crisp and lucid. She and her more-than-able cast catch the impulses that turn politics, in this case, into poignant human drama.