Modern politicians could learn a thing or two from Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
“I wish we debated like that now,” says actress Rebecca Mozo, who plays Douglas’ wife, Adele, in the L.A. Theatre Works’ national tour of “The Rivalry.”
Hancher is bringing the three-person show to the Englert Theatre in Iowa City on Feb. 23.
Playwright Norman Corwin has crafted this radio-theater production from transcripts of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. The rivals toured seven Illinois cities that year, campaigning for the U.S. Senate seat that incumbent Democrat Douglas eventually won. But the heated debates that focused largely on slavery issues as the nation headed into the Civil War also thrust the tall, lanky Lincoln into the national spotlight, paving the way for his victory over Douglas for the presidency two years later.
“There’s such eloquence in their speech and such respect,” Mozo, 30, says by phone from a tour stop in Oxford, Ohio.
She says the show is especially relevant as the nation is “inundated” with debates in the current presidential campaigns.
“Debates are reduced to a sound byte from these politicians now,” she says. “It’s fascinating to go back and see that in 1858, you had to travel to get your information and see and hear what these people had to say. It’s illuminating to see where we have gone since then and see the positive aspects of what we’ve done — and the negative aspects, as well.”
The production is a hybrid of a radio play and a traditionally staged play, with costumes, theatrical lighting and bits of scenery.
“We have microphones onstage, we do carry our scripts and there’s a Foley artist onstage creating sound effects like in traditional radio theater,” says Mozo, a New Jersey native now working in stage, film and television in Los Angeles. “We take elements from traditional theater and radio theater and combine them on tour.”
She says shows staged at L.A. Theatre Works’ home base in Los Angeles are strictly in the radio theater mode, with no costuming, sets or lights.
Even though the Lincoln-Douglas debates showcased the two candidates, she says Adele Douglas provides the context for the audience.
“Adele was very active and there all the time. She came to all the debates,” Mozo says.
That wasn’t the case with Mary Todd Lincoln.
“(She) had a sick child and wasn’t there, so no one ever saw her standing there with him.”
The Douglases had a very forward-thinking relationship, Mozo adds.
“Adele Douglas was Stephen Douglas’ right-hand man in a lot of ways. It’s interesting to see how much influence she had. They had such a modern relationship. She had an opinion and was encouraged to express it,” she says.
“The way the play is written, Adele is more at the forefront. I’m the connection to the audience. I bring the audience into the fold, stepping out from a reflection place, recalling the debates, recalling these events, and then the scene will start, so it’s like a memory play. She’s not a narrator, because she’s in the action.”
The show has been touring since fall and wraps up in early March. Performing in Gettysburg was a special treat.
“That was a really great experience. The people there are so enthusiastic about the subject matter. They’re very much into all things Lincoln,” she says. “It ended up being a really great show. Everyone in the audience seemed to be so invested in it — they knew the subject matter. It was like playing to all the real enthusiasts of Lincoln. The area is so rich in history.” And Lincoln impersonators, she says with a laugh.
The actors in the show bear a physical resemblance to Lincoln and Douglas, but are not intended to be impersonators. The look “is not a major focus,” Mozo says.
“Robert Parsons, who does play Lincoln, is very tall,” she says. “Josh Clark plays Douglas, who was apparently very short, about 5-feet, 1-inch. Josh isn’t that short, he’s like 5-10, but compared to Robert, there is a height difference. We don’t really have the Lincoln beard, either. (Physicality) is definitely a suggested kind of thing.”
Audiences will hear themes that sound familiar and ring true today, but also some uncomfortable language surrounding slavery.
“Lincoln (a Republican abolitionist) was against the extension of slavery into new territories, whereas Douglas really believed in having less government involvement,” she says. “That sounds so familiar right now. He wanted each state to make the decision for itself whether or not to make slavery legal, so that’s at the crux of their argument.
“Some of these things are very difficult to hear. Some of the things out of Douglas’ mouth are very racist,” she says, “but what’s crazy is that he was in the majority at the time. It blows your mind. Lincoln really argues that all men are created equal. That’s kind of inspiring.”
Mozo also is intrigued by the way Douglas changed in later years, abandoning his party lines to embrace Lincoln’s fight to keep the country unified.
“More than anything, what’s fascinating to me is that Stephen Douglas was the most famous man in America at the time of Lincoln, and now people barely know who he is,” she says. “What he ended up doing is pretty huge, something we need to think about now, especially.
“Even though he was so intensely opinionated and was very serious about this view — that there shouldn’t be equality and that slavery should exist — at the end, he blew his election to the presidency. …
“He decided on giving up on that election and supporting Lincoln and going to the South, arguing for the Union. You don’t see any politicians doing that today,” she says.
“He abandoned the party for the sake of the Union. He made quite a huge sacrifice.”
- WHAT: “The Rivalry”
- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23
- WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
- COST: $18.50 to $42
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