Stephen Douglas (Robert Smyth) has a lesson for his wife Adele (Colleen Kollar Smith) on the political facts of life.Have you heard the one about the preacher and the chimpanzee? Neither have I. I got close during Lamb's Players Theatre's good The Rivalry, but a bunch of music came up on cue over the punch line. Famed Illinois statesmen Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln got a big jazz out of it, so it must've been pretty gamey. Abe always did have an ear for anecdote. And Steve always could tell an off-color funny.
Turns out Steve could do more than that. In 1858, he beat Lincoln in a statewide series of debates on slavery, eventually retaining his Senate seat for the Democrats. Republican Lincoln had the last laugh two years later, clocking Douglas in both men's bid for the White House. Folks had heard about his strong showing in the contests, and his abolitionist fervor was infectious. The Rivalry falters in some unexpected places, but amid the characters' mutual respect in the face of disagreement, it appeals to our sense of political decorum and fairness—qualities that this day and age will likely never see again.
The story's told by Adele Douglas (an excellent Colleen Kollar Smith), the senator's beautiful second wife and the love of his life. Her introspective ways work alongside Stephen's impish restlessness; they also appeal to the more likeminded Lincoln (David Cochran Heath). She's the embodiment of the civil tongues these guys keep in their heads offstage—if slavery weren't such a divisive issue, writer Norman Corwin would have a buddy play on his hands.
Under the spotlight, the gloves are off. “Uniformity is the parent of despotism the world over!” Douglas rails, punching the air as he defends states' rights to answer the abolition question for themselves. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln famously counters in hawking an end to slavery nationwide. Under that fun exterior (and from behind his ubiquitous flask), Robert Smyth's Douglas delights in fiery rhetoric; amid real-life wife Deborah Gilmour Smyth's direction, the wonderful actor conveys Douglas' sense of respect for Lincoln beneath it all.
Heath's got Lincoln's worldliness down, for sure—but it's tinged with a touch too much “gee-whiz” wonderment. Presumably, the public Lincoln was more ponderous than all that. And there's a key scene where Adele stumbles on ol' Abe, supposedly at his most tired and sad; Heath's Lincoln is careworn and pensive, but fatigued and distressed he ain't. Corwin doesn't always win prizes, either. Neither man invented slavery, yet the playwright furnishes little subtext on the people who did.
It was refreshing to see two crusty pols spar with such abandon and zest, especially in front of Gilmour Smyth's catchy sound design. These days, real-life political debates are sorely over-rehearsed, their effectiveness measured largely in sound bytes.
I'm so far left in most of my ideology that even CityBeat's too conservative for me sometimes—but if a stout-hearted libertine like Abe hit the scene, I'd vote Republican any day.
I'm just sayin'.
This review is based on the matinée performance of April 11. The Rivalry runs through May 23 at The Ione and Paul Harter Stage, 1142 Orange Ave. in Coronado. $26-$58. www.lambsplayers.org. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.