Sunday, February 5, 2012

Necessary Rivalry

David Selby as Abraham Lincoln and Craig Wallace as Frederick Douglass in the Ford’s Theatre world premiere production of “Necessary Sacrifices,” directed by Jennifer L. Nelson. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Back from my traditional Sunday Matinee in February at Ford's trip, this year to see Necessary Sacrifices, starring David Selby (reprising his Lincoln from Ford's acclaimed Heavens Are Hung in Black) and Craig Wallace as Frederick Douglass (last seen at Ford's in Sabrina Fair).

I loved the familiarity of these two actors, even though Wallace had evidently been a last minute replacement. There's something special about seeing an artist try new things. In this case, Selby was honing the characterization he'd earlier applied in Heavens, playing Lincoln as increasingly contorted by pain and struggling for physical strength to match his moral strength.

With so much physicality going on in Selby's performance, it was a good thing that Wallace was probably more focused on his lines--it would have been too distracting if he'd been doing the same kind of dance that Selby's Lincoln was.

The language is complicated because the ideas are complex. I had the same feeling about The Rivalry, Ford's 2010 staging of the legendary debates between Lincoln and the other Douglas, Stephen. The staging in that case was very similar to that of Frayn's Copenhagen, as the characters orbited and echoed and challenged each other with gestures minimized.

The complexity of the issues that our Lincoln and Douglass were struggling with required them to challenge each other, and to admit that they are both human, both subject to heartbreak and humiliation, pride and blind spots. Though they would agree that the Civil War was ultimately about abolition, the actual execution of that goal was never so simple as saying "you're free." (Freedom without security was as much a threat to the black man as the loss of "property" that this freedom meant was to the confederates.)

There were a couple of times when I thought I saw the actors glimpse up at the President's box to catch a nod or grimace from that lingering, tormented soul. Maybe it was just me.

Even though Ford's is abandoning some of its past theatrical choices (no more Hot Mikado, I gather), I always feel the presence of my "Jeeves" in this very special space. Edward Duke told me that Sunday matinees were always the "worst houses." So when I say there was a rousing standing ovation for Selby and Wallace, I like to think Lincoln wasn't the only ghost smiling.

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