REVIEW: Arena’s ‘Camp David’ an emotional walk down memory lane.
For 13 days in 1978, President Jimmy Carter brought to the Camp David retreat Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in a thankless and impossible attempt to find a way to resolve their differences and establish some kind of a formula for peace in the Middle East.
President Carter and his wife Rosalynn came to the Arena Stage world premiere of Lawrence Wright’s “Camp David,” in what was clearly an emotional experience for the Carters and members of the cast who were dabbing tears away when the Carters came to the stage at the end of the performance. Arena’s artistic director, Molly Smith, explained that this was the first time a president and his wife had been to see a play about them and that they had not reviewed the script. To add to the emotional power of the evening, Smith called to the stage Jehan Sadat, the widow of the assassinated Egyptian president.
Washington was a logical place to open the play. The appreciative and sympathetic audience was filled with aging political and media figures who were around when the now 89-year-old Carter was putting his political career in jeopardy by convening the meetings in the isolation of the Catoctin mountains. Begin and Sadat had more at stake; Sadat was assassinated, in significant part because he signed the Camp David agreement. President Carter, who had other political problems, lost his bid for a second term.
While the play was compelling to the friendly, gala opening night audience, it is slow and tedious at times, even for someone fascinated by the historically entrenched bloody volatility of the Middle East. Those frustrating days were significant because it marked the first time an Arab state recognized Israel’s legitimacy as a sovereign nation. Sadat and Begin shared the Nobel Prize for Peace for reaching that agreement.
Smith wisely kept the set simple with large tree trunks and the facades of wooden buildings to suggest the woodland retreat. This is a play without much physical action, except for occasional moments when voices are raised in frustration. The action is in the ideas expressed, and while the intractable stands of the principals is fascinating to experience, it isn’t enough to have the three actors portraying such significant historical figures in a static, talky production. Gerald Rafshoon, who was a director of communications for President Carter, had wanted to see a film made about those seemingly endless days of negotiations at Camp David, but Hollywood wasn’t interested because there wasn’t enough for audiences to chew on. The same could be said here. There isn’t enough dramatic power in the play that Wright was commissioned to write. It might have helped to take the audience behind the scenes to witness the intense drama that must have taken place when Carter, Sadat and Begin met with some 100 staff and expert advisers who were also at the retreat.
Though he doesn’t bear any resemblance to President Carter, Richard Thomas, best remembered for his role as John Boy in the Waltons television series, leads the small cast and seemed uncomfortable portraying the former president. That might have been because the Carters were in the audience — that’s enough to intimidate a competent veteran actor like Thomas. In contrast, the Egyptian film star Khaled Nabawy was especially effective in his portrayal of the cool, dignified President Anwar Sadat, a former Nazi collaborator who came to Camp David with a formal list of demands. Ron Rifkin is impressive as his emotional Israeli antagonist, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a former radical Irgun fighter carrying the heavy responsibility of defending a new nation carved out of a Palestinian Arab homeland. It also helped that both men strikingly resemble Sadat and Begin.
Wright unfortunately gave the talented Hallie Foote, in the Rosalynn Carter role, little to do. She seemed an afterthought. During the actual event, she reportedly traveled back and forth from Washington and is said to have been a calming force for the two adversaries. Wright does acknowledge some of that in the play, but in a slightly more than 90-minute production, he couldn’t do much more.
Despite the play’s flaws, President Carter was clearly moved by the performances and the reaction of the audience, which gave an emotional standing ovation for both the play and the former president. In an interview later, Carter said it helped at Camp David that the three men were men of faith. President Carter and his wife were there to relive a piece of presidential history. As important as that is, “Camp David,” an educational historic snapshot, is ineffective theater.
“Camp David” continues through May 4, 2014 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets are $55-$110 available at 202-554-9066 and online here.