The most telling sign that Lawrence Wright's new play Camp David packs an emotional punch came during the curtain calls for the opening-night performance at Arena Stage. As President Jimmy Carter himself was invited up to the stage to join the cast and as he took his bows, tears filled his eyes.
Camp David shares the real-life account of the 13-day secluded negotiations in 1978 between Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the presidential retreat of Camp David, with peace in the Middle East as its goal.
As a history lesson, the play is dead on. The script captures all the facts and presents them simply to the audience without taking sides or preaching American ideals. Powerful exchanges between the three leaders make up the bulk of the play, as we better understand how the unprecedented agreement came to be.
It takes a while for Richard Thomas (known for his Emmy-winning role on the television series The Waltons) to feel comfortable in the former president's shoes, and it has nothing to do with preconceptions that John-Boy Walton can't pull it off; rather, it's the physical elements of the character, namely his wardrobe and makeup, that lack in making the actor look very Carter-like. Thankfully Thomas is a gifted thespian. He slowly begins to fill out the framework of Jimmy Carter, which, combined with a script that plays on the president's Southern charm and fierce determination, further cements the truthfulness of both the character and the story itself. Thomas' eyes convey all the anger and passion that his character has and must hold back in order to keep the peace efforts moving forward. It is in the scenes where the men debate, with President Carter as referee, that Thomas shines , bringing fortitude and dignity to Carter as he steers the arguments to a place of peace.
As Menachem Begin, Ron Rifkin is soft in nature but strong in ideals. The prime minister is determined to get his way. One doesn't need to be Jewish to understand Begin's argument, but Rifkin's background, having grown up as an Orthodox Jew, adds a layer of realism and depth to his performance.
Egyptian actor Khaled Nabawy comes off a little loose as Anwar Sadat, and although he looks the part more than the other two leaders, you don't often see the image of the fervent president Sadat was called out for being. And it is here that the book seems to take a few liberties, as Sadat appears to be more of a supporting player in the agreement rather than an equal.
Director Molly Smith spends a great deal of time focusing on the three leaders debating while sitting together on patio chairs, and sometimes, the scenes get a little stale. Smith would have been better served livening it up with more side conversations and maybe even using the cabin setting more.
Surprisingly, the play has lots of lighthearted moments, offered mostly by actor Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter, who knows when to "accidentally" interrupt a tense moment or offer her husband some tea and encouragement. It's long been said that Mrs. Carter had a lot to do with the success of the negotiations. Wright definitely credits the First Lady with doing her part. Still, the play could use more of her amusing wisdom. Foote's presence onstage for several other scenes would have been welcome, as she is an absolute joy to watch in the role.
A rustic set by Walt Spangler comes to life thanks to big trees and down-home cabins. The use of a golf cart makes the action seem less confined than it is.
Camp David does have its slow moments amid the drama, but when you're talking about the volatility of the never-ending conflict between Israelis and Arabs, it's hard to be anything but serious. Wright interposes enough heart and wit to keep the story from taking too strong a dramatic turn — though don't be surprised if you're moved the same way that Carter himself was.