By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review
“If we fail here, far more radical forces will arrive,” says Jimmy Carter in Lawrence Wright’s “Camp David,” a production commissioned by and produced at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage and produced at the Old Globe through June 19. Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith stages the work and Richard Thomas as Carter heads the six-person company.
“Camp David” refers to the 13-day conference hosted by President Jimmy Carter in September 1978, at the presidential retreat known as Camp David, during which a peace accord was agreed upon by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt (Khaled Nabawry) and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel (Ned Eisenberg).
Wright informs playgoers in his program note, “When the leaders of Egypt and Israel met at Camp David, their two countries had been engaged in four wars in the previous 30 years.”
Calling the conflict “the most obdurate in modern times,” Wright said that it “drowned the Middle East in a timeless blood feud, flooded the region with refugees, spawned terrorist movements that have created mayhem and heartbreak all over the world, and even brought the superpowers of the time to the brink of nuclear war.”
That three flawed men were able to bring about the accord despite religious and political differences gives us hope for the future.
As the playwright declares, it was “an achievement that nonetheless stands as one of the great diplomatic triumphs of the 20th century …”
To cram those 13 days into one two-hour play, to pursue the salient points and the inherent conflict, was not an easy job.
Wright — whose achievement is called “an uncanny facsimile of the truth” by Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein — is up to the task. He is author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Looming Tower,” numerous books, plays and documentaries. “Camp David” premiered in 2014 and the same year a book emerged from the play.
In the opening half-hour or so of the play, this audience member feared she was in for two hours of unceasing arguments, but Wright is too smart for that.
Rosalynn Carter, played by the brilliant Hallie Foote, is counselor to each of the peacemakers, providing humanity and bit of musical levity when needed. Her tea tray is ever at the ready when negotiations are at their toughest. As the days pass and time grows short, suspense builds and as always, Carter knows just what tactics, and yes, threats to employ.
Sadat and the avuncular Carter were longtime friends to begin with, sharing great simpatico when it came to the workings of family. Even the more intractable Begin is rendered sympathetic to a certain degree and his position understandable.
San Diego actors Brian Banville and Jon Maxwell play two marines, there to ease the way and make certain everyone is comfortable and protected.
Walt Spangler’s lovely scenic design accommodates open space at Camp David and Gettysburg (a beautifully played, actual side trip designed to ease tension), as well as Camp David cabins and outdoor seating areas. Paul Tazewell is costume designer and Pat Collins’ lighting design includes spectacular sunsets and a thunderstorm along with David Van Tieghem’s sound design (he also wrote original music).
The audience on Sunday evening, May 22, gave the show a standing ovation. Many left the theater wiping tears from their eyes and giving thanks for the fact of Camp David and for Wright’s clear, informative and touching work.
“What did you learn from your experience tonight?” I overheard a teacher ask his class of teens as they walked toward the parking lot.
In addition to being fine entertainment, “Camp David” provides many teaching moments for those who never knew and for those who may have forgotten.