In “The Rivalry,— a new play opening at Ford’s Theatre, actor Robert Parsons has the opportunity to play the role of Abraham Lincoln. It’s an honor that is bestowed on very few actors.
“You know, it’s almost overwhelming at times to think about it just because of all the history there,— Parsons says. It can also be distracting to get caught up in thoughts of what happened a few feet from the stage on that fateful night in 1865, he says. “As an actor, I sort of have to stay away from that and just play the story as it is,— Parsons says.
Parsons will play a young Lincoln about to take part in debates with Stephen Douglas during the 1858 Illinois Senate race. The seven famed debates are condensed and enhanced by the fictional insights of Douglas’ wife, Adele, played by Sarah Zimmerman.
“What’s unique is that my character provides this private world in which you get to see them as real people and how they come to the perspectives that they come to in the play, and it’s beautiful in that way,— Zimmerman says.
Much of the play’s dialogue, which was written by Norman Corwin, is pulled directly from the debates and deals with such heavy topics as slavery, states’ rights and how to interpret the Constitution in the years leading up to the Civil War.
“The play speaks to the power of an idea — in this case, liberty for all men — and its ability to propel a man of humble origins to the highest office in the land,— director Mark Ramont says in a release.
The 1858 Senate campaign thrust Lincoln into the spotlight and was the first time many people really took note of the man who would later become the Great Emancipator.
“I think Douglas was thought to be someone who was going to win it hands-down, but Lincoln, as the debates progressed, really started to show his true colors,— Parsons says. “He started to show his mettle and his passion for trying to change the world.—
Despite the serious subject manner, Zimmerman says the show is also humorous.
“Because it’s so real, it’s very funny,— she says. “It’s been shocking to me how much we laugh.—
While the debates are the backdrop of the show, Parsons says the show is much more than two men standing at lecterns. It is a look at the men on a personal level. Through his work on this role, the actor says he’s come to see a new side of Lincoln that is filled with depth.
“There’s so much more to him than just what you see on the $5 bill,— he says. “And when you start getting into it, you realize how deep and complex and human he was.—
Just as the show humanizes Lincoln, it also adds another dimension to Douglas. Audiences who see “The Rivalry— may be surprised to find themselves sympathizing with the man, despite his racist views.
“The audience is very uncomfortable that they feel something for a man who is saying horrid, horrid things, but it’s because you care about him because you get to see him with his wife,— Zimmerman says.
In the end, the play is a character study. It delves into the beliefs of these two titans and the idea that one person can make a difference.
“You leave understanding the capabilities of one person or two people, what just one or two people can do and accomplish to make change,— Zimmerman says.
“The Rivalry— runs from Jan. 22 to Feb. 14, and tickets are available at fords.org.