Camp David, the high-profile world-premiere being staged at Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theater, is the quintessential Washington play: talky, well-considered, erring on cautionary by offering airings and explanations for both sides of a long and arduous conflict. Written by Lawrence Wright, Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker journalist, author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, among other nonfiction books and playwright, Camp David is a snapshot of 13 days in 1978, when against all odds three world leaders came together to make peace — and succeeded.
The real-life peace that resulted, between Israel and Egypt, has held until today. That doesn’t mean it was an easy task, nor has it been an uneventful one. Yet the story of how President Jimmy Carter cajoled, finagled and finally gave in to two sworn enemies — Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat — is a compelling one to recall.
The play, instigated by former Carter communications director Gerald Rafshoon and commissioned as part of Arena’s American Presidents Project, runs through May 4. Handsomely directed by the theater’s artistic director Molly Smith, the production features Broadway and television star Ron Rifkin as Begin; longtime stage actor Richard Thomas, best known for his role as John-Boy on TV’s The Waltons, as Carter; and Egyptian movie star Khaled Nabawy as Sadat. The ringer in the play, and seemingly in the negotiations if Wright has hewn as close to historical facts as he promised, is the sweet-and-tart Hallie Foote, who plays Carter’s loving and emotionally intelligent wife Rosalynn.
Today it’s hard to believe that Carter could convince two nations’ top leaders to isolate themselves in the homey cabins of Catoctin Mountain’s Camp David for the better part of two weeks. These days, with a near instantaneous news cycle, it’s unimaginable that a diplomatic summit of that length and level of isolation would take precedence.
Playwright Wright deals fairly with the seemingly insurmountable barriers and opposing histories that cause Begin and Sadat, each in his own stubborn way, to hold sway over the negotiations. He bases much of the dialogue on hundreds of hours of interviews, including with President and Mrs. Carter, and personal journals, including one kept by the first lady.
What’s most intriguing, aside from the lightly cajoling Foote as Rosalynn, is how alike these men are in so many ways. We learn early on that Sadat’s grandson is being treated for a serious illness in a Paris hospital, while Begin puffs with pride about his brood of grandchildren and the Carters bring their youngest daughter, Amy, up for the weekend.
Most important for these three world leaders on a personal level is their fervently held religious convictions. Wright shows each man in a moment of connecting to God. Carter talks in conversational tones to his God. Begin, the most formal in a suit and tie even in the open air setting of Camp David, meditates on a Hebrew prayer and Sadat prostrates himself on a prayer rug to connect with Allah. This religious thread throughout the play becomes among the most interesting veins in this still living history as we see three men of faith — Christian, Jew and Muslim — wrestle their way toward peace.
Walt Spangler’s old-fashioned standard set features tree trunks, a woodsy cabin exterior and requisite benches as well as a golf cart, which Carter mans with aplomb. Pat Collins’ lighting exquisitely provides a time clock for each scene. There are glowing orange sunsets, inky purple evenings and bright sunny mornings, all cast in a reverie of light. Chuck LaPointe mostly gets it right with the wigs, and Paul Tazewell’s costumes, too, are nonremarkable but imminently serviceable for a realistic portrayal of such well-known historical figures.
At times the play, which clocks in at 90 minutes with no intermission, as likely the negotiation process itself, feels plodding, requiring much explanation and political explication to lay out the conflicts. As Washington plays go, this one is exceedingly talky, with plenty of high-level power-speak, but also with revelatory touches. This is where Wright is at his best: delving into the personal histories that have made each of these figures who they are.
While we all know the political outcome of the Camp David Accords — a peace treaty signed a bright September day — we also know how arduous it was getting to that singular moment. At times each side threatened to walk away from the table and return home without an agreement. I won’t reveal the lovely and poignant moment that finally led to the agreement being ratified, but it makes for a touching end to a long and sometimes meandering piece of theater.
Camp David has provided Arena Stage with its own unique historic moment as well. On the red-carpeted opening earlier this month, among the political luminaries who attended were President and Mrs. Carter, marking the first time an American president has attended a play at Arena Stage, the region’s oldest and most-respected regional theater. With this production running in Southwest and a run of Golda’s Balcony Theater J in Northwest (see story on page 36), this confluence of two plays about 20th century Israeli leaders and their relentless quest for peace make this as well a singular moment in Washington theater unlikely to occur again.
Camp David is onstage through May 4 at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in the District. Tickets, at $55-$110, are available by calling 202-488-3300 or