At the Irish Repertory Theatre's production of The Rivalry by Norman Corwin, directed by former Abbey Theatre artistic director Vincent Dowling, you'll understand why thousands flocked to hear orators like Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, his opponent in the 1858 race for the U.S. Senate. If the play is essentially a re-enactment of their famous debates, that's no slur against its dramatic power. The stakes are high, and the topic is no less than the conflict ripping the country apart: slavery.
The timing is right for this revival of the 99-year-old Corwin's 1959 drama, following a divisive presidential campaign in which race was not the main issue but a strong undercurrent. When Democrat Douglas attacks Republican Lincoln for having slave-holding acquaintances, after Lincoln raises the Dred Scott case (in which the Supreme Court ruled that a black man is no more than property), it's hard not to think of the innuendos about Barack Obama and Bill Ayers. Some tactics never change.
Douglas' wife serves as a self-effacing narrator, and Mary Linda Rapelye brings out her subtle shrewdness, though the in-between scenes often feel like filler. Peter Cormican's dignified Douglas is never merely a bigot, and you can't help liking him despite his racist ideology. Christian Kauffmann's Lincoln is too jolly at first, but he grows in gravity and power of thought before our eyes, becoming the visionary statesman we read about in school. Dowling's sensitive and seamless direction delivers a simple and appealing drama.
Presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre in association with the Vincent Dowling Theatre Company at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., NYC.
May 21–July 19. Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., and Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 727-2737.