The Rivalry

Abraham Lincoln (Robert Parsons, left) and Stephen Douglas (Josh Clark) face off in the L.A. Theatreworks revival of Norman Corwin's "The Rivalry," coming Feb. 16 to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts. (Courtesy photo)

BLOOMINGTON -- Is the man who would be Lincoln wary about venturing forth into what he admits is "the belly of the beast"?

"It's kind of exciting, actually," says the man.

He's Robert Parsons, a West Coast-based actor affiliated with the West Coast-based L.A. TheatreWorks, the country's lone theater company dedicated to the regular production and recording of classic radio dramas, with top actors like Paul Giamatti, Alfred Molina, JoBeth Williams, Annette Bening, Julie Harris, Ed Asner, David Strathairn and Laurence Fishburne.

As for the belly of the beast, Parsons has been down there before -- deep down -- and knows the score.

He's played Abraham Lincoln in several even more potentially daunting locales associated with our 16th president, including Gettysburg, Pa., and Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.

The occasion for this latest venture into the beast's belly: L.A. TheatreWorks' election-year revival of radio legend Norman Corwin's "The Rivalry," a dramatization of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.

Essaying the role of Stephen Douglas is another seasoned stage veteran, Josh Clark, best know to the public at large for recurring roles in such TV series as "Heroes," "Star Trek Voyager" and "All My Children."

"The Rivalry" comes to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts in especially timely fashion, just four days after what would have been Lincoln's 203rd birthday (7 p.m. Feb. 16).

Bringing the show into the heart of Lincolnland -- where related history and activities are in no short supply -- is less a daunting prospect than a privileged one, say the participants.

They include Susan Loewenberg, the founder and artistic director of L.A. TheatreWorks.

The troupe produces various forms of radio-indebted theater, ranging from straight-up live radio productions, with no props or costumes, just mikes and scripts in hand; on up to full-sail theater productions, with all the trimmings (sets, costumes, no scripts in hand).

According to Parsons and Loewenberg, we're getting a production lodged somewhere in between -- "kind of a hybrid version," notes the former.

Parsons played the full-dress edition at Ford's Theatre, so he knows the distinctions.

"It's a hybrid in the sense that you have costumes, a small set, lighting and some sounds," he says.

That's the familiar theatrical part.

Then there's the radio influence, per the scripts the actors will wield, visibly in hand, more for effect than actual usage, notes Loewenberg.

Also a dead giveaway to the radio roots: the microphones positioned around the set, which the actors have to hit before speaking; and the sound effects person, who divides her time between playing several small supporting roles and working the audio effects at a table visible to the audience.

"She's on an elevated platform, and you can see her using all kinds of interesting things to make sounds, including miniature doors to open and shut, a whistle for the train, and all kinds of things to make sound," says Loewenberg.

"If somebody pops a cork, she's there to make that sound effect," adds Parsons. "It gives the show the flavor of radio without going all the way."

In an ironic twist of fate, the play's author, radio pioneer Norman Corwin, died just days after the show hit the road last fall for its election-year tour.

Granted, he was a venerable 101, notes Loewenberg, but he was still alert and active right up to nearly the end (he was a teacher at UCLA until age 97).

The man credited with some of the greatest dramas in the history of the medium "was thrilled" to see his 50-year-old work returned to life, first in 2009, as a straight radio recording with David Strathairn as Lincoln

and Paul Giamatti as Douglas.

The play synthesizes actual debate transcripts into an essentially three-character chamber piece (Douglas' wife Adele, played by Rebecca Mozo, completes the trio).

"What is so breathtakingly different from today's political scene is how principled they both were, putting the nation before their own hopes," says Loewenberg.

The debates' hot-button issue was slavery, and its expansion into the territories.

Although Douglas was re-elected senator from Illinois, the debates brought Lincoln into the limelight and set him on the road to the White House.

"The play still resonates, outward from history into the modern world," says Parsons. "A lot of the things we are still talking about today were being discussed then."

Albeit in a far more civil way than the jaded world of 2012 politicking knows, adds Loewenberg.

"People would actually sit and listen to a conversation, whereas today we have these guys who get up there with their prepared sound bytes, all glib, all waiting to pounce and make it in on CNN and use it for the attack ad later," says Parsons.

Adds Loewenberg: "The thing that is so stunning about the play, and true, is that both men were putting their country above their party and personal ambitions. Can you even imagine that now?"

At a glance

What: L.A. TheatreWorks' "The Rivalry" by Norman Corwin

When: 7 p.m. Feb. 16

Where: Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, 600 N. East St.

Tickets: $27 to $33

Box office: 866-686-9541

The rivals

• Robert Parsons (Abraham Lincoln): In addition to portraying Lincoln in the production of "The Rivalry" that played Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., Parsons is a San Francisco-area actor with extensive stage credits around the region. He has also appeared in such films as "Almost Famous" and "Black August," as well as the TV series "Nash Bridges."

• Josh Clark (Stephen Douglas): Clark played the March Hare in Eva Le Gallienne's production of "Alice in Wonderland," among numerous other stage appearances on- and off-Broadway. To the public, he's probably best known for recurring roles in the TV series, "All My Children," "Pretty Little Liars," "Heroes" and "Star Trek Voyager," where he appeared in an eight-episode story arc as Lt. Carey.

The ally

• Rebecca Mozo (Adele Douglas): With the Center Theatre Group, Mozo starred opposite Annette Bening and Alfred Molina in "The Cherry Orchard," and has appeared in such TV series as "Cold Case," "Medium," "The Young and the Restless" and "Pizza Time."

The mediator

• Norman Corwin (author-playwright): The "poet laureate of radio" died at 101 last October, just a few days after this touring revival hit the road. He lived to see the medium that gave birth to his greatest works evolve away from live drama into other realms. "The Rivalry" was a theater work that premiered in 1958 in Vancouver, Canada, with Raymond Massey as Lincoln and Martin Gabel as Douglas. Its Broadway opening occurred a year later, 1959, with Gabel still on board and Richard Boone taking over as Lincoln.



So how much do you really know about the Lincoln-Douglas debates that occurred right here in our neck of the woods and form the basis for Norman Corwin's "The Rivalry"? Take this quiz and find out (answers are at the end):

1. How many debates were there?

2. In what year did they occur?

3. Where were the debates held?

4. What was each man's political affiliation?

5. What was the political race at hand?

6. What was the central issue at stake?

7. "It is the eternal struggle between these two principles -- right and wrong -- throughout the world": Douglas or Lincoln?

8. Who won the race?

Answers: 1.) Seven; 2.) 1858; 3.) Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, Alton; 4.) Douglas, D; Lincoln, R; 5.) Illinois Senate;

6.) slavery; 7.) Lincoln; 8.) Douglas

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