Camp David

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

The real President Jimmy Carter attended the premiere of Camp David—the engrossing new play by Lawrence Wright in which he is the central character—and offered up this mini-review of it in an interview right after:

It was amazingly good. I couldn’t believe how good it was. The audience just was enraptured. A third or half of them had tears running down their cheeks. It was a really emotional experience.

I mostly concur. This most worthy play relates scenes in the 13-day woodsy retreat in 1978 during which Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin negotiated the shouldsy-couldsy Camp David Accord. By the end I sat still in my seat in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater enraptured and teary-eyed, exactly as President Carter reported. The final scene (which no one should know going in) comes as the kind of shock that stirs emotions in the deepest and best way that real-life events and great drama can.

I was initially a bit put off by the production. The set design by Walt Spangler is conspicuously unstylish; everything is serviceably literal (perhaps intentionally), except for the tall tree trunks that descend from the flyspace but never touch down on the stage. Distracted, I kept wondering why (some mechanical failure? a statement about rootlessness? never made sense). The acting is unstylized as well, almost stiff and stilted in its cautious execution, as perhaps befits a show that will be seen by two of the notables—Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter—on whom it is based. Moreover the script itself is unstylish; its earnestly flairless speeches at times seem lifted from an issue-themed TV movie, or something commissioned by the State Department for Voice of America, and when the three men sit squabbling it sounds like a Sunday morning squawk show. Can the great real-life drama upon which a play is based elevate what begins as a hackneyed production to a highpoint of dramatic triumph?

In this case the answer is an unqualified yes.

According to Wright, that powerful last scene, which seems stranger than fiction, is in fact based, like the entire play, on extensive historical research. Though Wright took minor dramatic liberties to tell the story on stage, as he explained in a post-show discussion Saturday, the text presents what really happened in that it is faithful to what can be known about the characters’ actual motivations at the time.

The agreement reached at Camp David between Sadat and Begin has served for 35 years to keep in place a partial peace in the Middle East, and the human drama behind the scenes of its inception unfolds in Wright’s playscript with sturdy craft and deft concision. In retrospect, once the play reaches its finish, one can see what went before as the perfectly apt, un-showoff-y staging required.

The work is directed with steady-handed proficiency by Molly Smith. A skilled cast animates Wright’s pithy script with conviction and clarity. Richard Thomas plays Carter with estimable sincerity. Even in the long speeches when Carter prays and addresses God (as if He’s somewhere up in that flyspace with  mechanical problems), we believe the character’s faith and recognize how profoundly Carter’s unabashed Christianity compelled and sustained him. Khaled Nabawy plays Sadat with disarming charm and clever candor; as written, he’s a character who may or may not trust Carter and may or may not be trusted—Nabawy smartly keeps us intrigued and guessing. And Ron Rifkin plays Begin with such zeal and honesty of purpose that we see through the character’s obstreperousness into the depths of a heart wounded by a history that must never ever repeat.

As Wright astutely observed in the same post-show discussion, these were “three men with different religions coming together to solve a problem that in a sense religion had caused.” The fact that all three  faiths with contested claims to a singular holy city became on the same stage completely and concurrently credible via these three vividly portrayed characters is an enduring credit to Wright, Smith, Thomas, Nabawy, and Rifkin. Truly, seeing them is believing.

But the character who steals scene after scene is Rosalyn Carter, played with quick-witted common sense and chipper effortlessness by Hallie Foote. She enters with tea service just when a tempest is about to brew. She gently touches a personal heart string just as tempers stretch to a tether. Rosalyn’s function in the play is (Wright’s words again) “making peace among the peacemakers.” She is also shown to have been Jimmy’s moral support and political adviser to an extent that in Wright’s rendering transcends  pillow talk and stands where heroes are honored.

In the characters of Jimmy and Rosalyn, Camp David brilliantly depicts two distinct mediation/conciliation styles, his and hers, one well-intentioned and highly moral male, the other intuitive and unthreatening female. His magnanimous style was admirable and it precipitated this impossible pipe-dream of a summit. But Camp David makes clear that this president’s  mediation style on its own would not have worked without this first lady’s. Without her gifts of grace, it would have failed. Male-male rivalries would not have subsided. There would be no concord. There would still be gendered animus in monotheism’s name. Therein may lie a lesson—and maybe the best reason of all for staging this play right now in D.C.

Camp David is ultimately a stirring revelation, and quintessential personal-is-political theater. No one in town is too much a policy wonk not to learn from it and be moved by it.