Talk about your surreal moments. At the world premiere Thursday night of Lawrence Wright’s Camp David, a dramatization of the 13-day contretemps in 1978 between President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin, you watched Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn sitting in the audience watching younger versions of themselves onstage.
Although the Carters cooperated with Wright and granted extensive interviews—Rosalynn even gave the playwright her personal diary of the Camp David Accords—they had not read or seen the play until opening night. What must have been going through their hearts and minds as they relived those tense, testing days, which resulted in the first and most lasting peace to date in the Middle East between Arabs and Jews?
One can hardly imagine. And the curtain call, when the Carters made their way to the stage and embraced the actors playing them (Richard Thomas and Hallie Foote)—Rosalynn grasping the arm of Foote and fixing a firm, loving gaze on her past self—only deepened the through the looking glass experience.
Emotion—mingled with a sense of triumph and historical vindication—swept through the Kreeger Thursday night, a sold-out crowd of politicos, media notables and Carter-era loyalists. The feeling in the theater was so intense it was difficult to tell what was stirred up by the play and what sprang from the volatility of the never-ending conflict between Israelis and Arabs.
Camp David centers on an enduring agreement forged 36 years ago, but present-day crises in the Middle East creep into the theater and very much inform your reactions to the play. At once, you are reminded and inspired by the significance of President Carter’s remarkable achievement—and what it cost all three leaders—and then you are sobered by the fact that very little has changed. Massive issues persist and the core ideology is the same as it has been for centuries.
The play humanizes the Middle East conundrum, which in a way makes it even more shattering. Through this dramatization, we see how similar Sadat (Khaled Nabawy) and Begin (Ron Rifkin) were—both men of resolute faith, deeply suspicious of one another, who use their mighty hatred as unshakable evidence that they are sitting on the right hand side of God.
The biggest and most tragic similarity is their bondage to the past. Sadat and Begin talk of centuries of animosity and victimization—and they seem unshakable in the conviction that Arabs could never understand the Jews’ suffering and perspective and vice-versa. “Again with the Holocaust,” Sadat gripes to Carter and in those moments you can see just how far apart they actually are and how rooted they are in cultural stereotypes.
Carter and his uncannily prescient wife Rosalynn—citizens of a young country that has never been under enemy occupation–don’t understand why the two leaders can’t let go of the past and envision a free and clear future. On the other hand, Begin and Sadat are skeptical that an American president can fully understand the Gordian knot of conflicts between the two enemies.
And you have to admit they have a point. Carter (skillfully portrayed by Thomas without a whit of mimicry) is a blend of naiveté, idealism and unsullied will. He believes the Camp David Summit is part of God’s plan for him—with that sort of impetus, what could go wrong?
This makes for a taut, tension-addled 90 minutes, ironically set in the bucolic presidential retreat in the Cacoctin Mountains—a place envisioned by set designer Walt Spangler as filled with groves of old trees and dappled with ever-changing light.
In this setting, we watch the three leaders spar as if in a canvas and sweat-stained arena. Sadat, as smoothly played by Nabawy, starts off as the munificent diplomat, until the genial mask slips and you see his ancient rage and rancor toward the Jewish people. Begin is seen as thorny and difficult from the start—a man who uses semantics and exactitude as a frustrating delaying tactic and is so precise he notices right off the bat that Sadat’s cabin is closer to Carter’s than his is—but Rifkin’s impassioned and rigorous portrayal reveals the fury and history behind the pedantry.
Closes May 4, 2014
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $100 – $110
Tuesdays thru Sundays
To take the comparison further, one guesses you could see the Carters as the hapless Nick and Honey, awkwardly sitting in the middle of this age-old battle of the immortals. But that is not completely apt, since it somehow dilutes their power in this drama—Carter as both the go-between and the driver, the First Lady (in a graceful, carefully wrought portrait by Foote) as his trusted and insightful second-in-command, as well as a humanizing presence for all three men.
The play is not all fighting, as Wright leavens the seriousness with a running bit involving Carter zipping ceaselessly between Sadat and Begin’s cabins in a golf cart and some glimpses into the enduring love story between Jimmy and Rosalynn.
Structurally, Camp David could use some refining, as some of the arguments are repetitive and sophistic, to the point where the play feels longer than 90 minutes. Yet, its emotional power and sense of importance pulls you in and makes you wonder if Sadat’s observation is true. “For 30 years,” he says, “we have lived with our enemy. Can we live without him?”
Camp David by Lawrence Wright . Directed by Molly Smith . Featuring Hallie Foote, Khaled Nabawy, Ron Rifkin, and Richard Thomas . Set Design: Walt Spangler . Costume Design: Paul Tazewell . Lighting Design: Pat Collins . Sound Design: David Van Tieghem . Projection Design: Jeff Sugg . Dialect Coach: Anita Maynard-Losh . Stage Manager: Susan R. White, assisted by Michael D. Ward . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Lisa Traiger . WashingtonJewishWeek
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
KateWingfield . MetroWeekly
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Susan Davidson . CurtainUp
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Roger Catlin . BroadwayWorld
John Stoltenberg . DCMetroTheaterArts
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld