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Camp David

A political play about the historic 1978 Middle East peace accords has its West Coast premiere at the Old Globe Theatre.

Ned Eisenberg (Menachem Begin), Richard Thomas (Jimmy Carter), and Khaled Nabawy (Anwar Sadat) in the west coast premiere of Lawrence Wright's Camp David, directed by Molly Smith, at the Old Globe Theatre.
(© Jim Cox)

The abilities to chronicle and personalize history are two distinct talents. Pulitzer Prize-winning author and New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright had already proven himself adept in both mediums when he set his sights on the historic Middle East treaty between Egypt and Israel. It's notable that of the two works Wright has written about the 1978 Camp David Accords – one a 90-minute play, the other a 300-page nonfiction account – he penned the play first.

That play, Camp David, may end up being the next great political drama. Containing a set of universally relevant themes, four rich parts, minimal staging demands, and a tight script, Camp David should be the regional theater circuit's heir apparent to Lee Blessing's "A Walk in the Woods," a play to which Wright owes some small thematic debt. Since Camp David is based on real and ongoing events, Wright's play feels more urgent than Blessing's, and the play's West Coast premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre positively crackles with heat. A New York production is likely the next logical next step.

The Old Globe production is superb. With the exception of one key player, director Molly Smith has reassembled her entire team from the play's 2014 world premiere at Arena Stage. Walt Spangler's tree-bedecked Maryland campsite, enhanced by Jeff Sugg's projections and Pat Collins' lighting sets the stage for a battle of wills that is equally political and deeply personal. Against a rather bucolic backdrop, three world leaders argue, soul-search, and ultimately manage to undo thousands of years of enmity. A Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding, history wasn't exactly kind to the architects of the Camp David Accords, and Smith's production is acutely aware of the situation's risks and ironies.

For 13 days in the fall of 1978, President Jimmy Carter brought Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David with the intention of bringing about peace between the two longtime enemy nations. More than 100 delegates were present, but Wright's Camp David telescopes the entire conference into a series of key scenes between the key players: Carter (Richard Thomas), Sadat (Khaled Nabawy) and Begin (Ned Eisenberg). First Lady Rosalynn Carter (Hallie Foote) — while not officially a delegate — is present both to keep her husband centered and to shrewdly help move the talks along. "She's a remarkable woman," Begin tells Carter. "She's not Jewish?"

As vociferously as both Middle Eastern leaders profess to want peace, Sadat and Begin are hugely divided. They are distrustful of Carter and leery of each other, and much of the negotiating has Carter meeting with each leader individually. Sadat's opening "comprehensive" peace proposal hits all of the provisions that Begin considers deal-breakers: dismantling of Israeli settlements, redrawing boundaries, compensation for past wrongs. It's not well received. Sadat's off-the-record quip to Rosalynn — "We like to hate each other" — contains the ring of truth.

All four actors infuse the scenes with an intimate "you are there" vibe without making the proceedings feel like history is weighing in the balance. To some extent, Camp David is a series of encounters between longtime friends (Sadat and Carter), half-trusting political bedfellows (Carter and Begin) and a husband and wife confronting their present and a potentially doomed future. As balanced as the play mostly is in favor of all three sides, this feels like Carter's last stand. Thomas, gently taking on the Georgian's drawl and mannerisms, portrays a good man and an anxious architect who is willing to risk his political legacy. Often in jeans and western shirts, he zips between cabins in a golf cart, pausing only to kibitz with his wife and roll his eyes over the absurdity of the proceedings. In quieter moments, Thomas's Carter prays, letting out his frustration to a God that isn't giving enough assistance. Wright juxtaposes these scenes with the equally devout Begin and Sadat also at prayer.

Nabawy, a film star in his native Egypt, nails Sadat's elegance and taps into the man's abilities as a statesman. Tall and dapper, and possessing a strong physical resemblance to the former president, Nabawy's Sadat is a calculator rather than a street fighter. He's a fit match for the Begin of Ned Eisenberg (Ron Rifkin played the role at Arena Stage). It's a thorny role as Begin often comes across as the character most hell-bent on holding up progress rather than advancing it. But in Eisenberg's hands, the character's insistence in protecting Israel comes from a place of righteousness. The man isn't simply doing a job.

It was a canny maneuver to weave Rosalynn Carter into the proceedings, and the always interesting Foote snakes her way into scenes between blustery leaders just before they are about to derail. The production benefits greatly from her dry humor and the tenderness between her and Jimmy.

Camp David is not a suspenseful tale. Historians will know the outcome of Wright's play before they take their seats. All the same, the journey is never dull, and the final encounter between Carter and Begin is more than enough to generate a lump in your throat. The post-curtain projections, detailing the fates of the Camp David architects, carry a certain sadness. These courageous men deserved greater joy.

Regardless, the 90 minutes we spend watching the unlikeliest of peace unfold is tribute enough. Tempestuous negotiations and solid drama are both worth celebrating.

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