Theatre Review: ‘Camp David’ at Arena Stage

Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin, Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Khaled Nabawy as Anwar Sadat in 'Camp David' at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater March 21-May 4, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin, Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Khaled Nabawy as Anwar Sadat in ‘Camp David’ at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater March 21-May 4, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Because he was witness to history — Jimmy Carter’s 13 day peace summit between the heads of Israel and Egypt in 1978 — former White House Communications director Gerald Rafshoon always felt he should capture that moment in history.

After trying a couple of screenplays, he found the stage a more natural place for the story — inspired perhaps by the success of the diplomatic drama predecessor, “A Walk in the Woods,” about two arms negotiators meeting near Geneva.

Accumulating a lot of papers about the event — including many that hadn’t been previously released — for its writer Lawrence Wright, the resulting “Camp David” premiering at Arena Stage is a unique artifact — scholarship presented in theatrical fashion.

…top notch… ‘Camp David’ will retain power for audiences for decades to come.

It aims to give an inside look at an historic attempt. Even though it failed ultimately to bring any lasting peace to the Middle East or settle questions that continued through many other administrations, similar attempts at summit talks were also tried; there are talks currently that are often threatening to break down.

That makes the first seconds of the play unsettling — as a smiling Jimmy Carter enters the stage in a fast moving golf cart with Rosalynn Carter, for a moment it occurs that this could be one extended “Saturday Night Live” political exaggeration if played wrong.

But it isn’t. Richard Thomas, almost as familiar a 70s icon as Carter with his role as John-Boy in “The Waltons,” wisely plays down the presidential impersonation shorthand usually used to portray Carter. He tones down the Southern accent and the wide smile.

At the same time, he seems so tall and burly in his jeans and gaudy Western shirts, he almost cuts more the figure of another governor who that defeated him in re-election, Ronald Reagan. Thomas is fully convincing as Carter, though, especially in soliloquies with God, in which he speaks plainly about trying to make some progress in the long-stalled talks.

The biggest obstacle in “Camp David” is in all of its diplomatic detail. The long conflict is, as many say in the play, complicated, and watering it down would not serve the story. At the same time, can we expect to grasp the whole of half century’s conflicts in one sitting.

Sadly, the issues of “Camp David” are the issues of today. Chris Christie had to apologize to a potential donor for using the term “occupied territory” just last week.

Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter in 'Camp David' at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater March 21-May 4, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter in ‘Camp David’ at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater March 21-May 4, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

But at the same time, so many of the minute details of the 1978 negotiations are either a hazy memory or completely unknown to a younger audience. Even in that wonkiest of cities, D.C., with an opening night audience filled with State Department types, diplomats, politicians from Nancy Pelosi to President Carter himself, and all manner of national media including Bob Schieffer, Chris Matthews, Andrea Mitchell and Judy Woodruff, dialog bogged down in details of past arguing points.

If there was ever a way to present geopolitics in popular theater, this is probably the way to do it. Though it may not have had the poetic language of “Henry IV” — each line seemed to be meticulously sourced to the actual leaders —  “Camp David” soared at its most personal moments.

One of the best of them came early, when the three deeply serious and religious men all prayed to their gods, each in his own distinct religion and separate languages but with equal yearning and sincerity toward peace.

There’s not much build up (a short film fails to establish context for the long, drawn-out conflict) and soon the three men are on the stage, striving against the stereotypes that condensing the talks would naturally bring.

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Egyptian President Anwar Sadat thinks himself as going out on a limb for peace, but has an uncompromising initial list of demands. At the same time, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin insists on slowing the process, is insulted by the demands and doesn’t seem to budge much on his own position.

Carter encourages each but has little to put on the table. In reality, he devised a way to negotiate that involved individual approaches and compromises — a method that’s still used today. But that’s condensed for the play; direct confrontation makes better drama.

The secret weapon — in the play and possibly in real life — is in Rosalynn Carter, who comes out with a tray of tea at just the right moments, drawling an innocuous comment — “How’s the peacemaking going?” just as the argument is most tense — that tends to cut to the heart of the talks and cause change.

In this, Hallie Foote is really a standout. Perhaps unencumbered by the historical expectations put on the men, she is able to speak more frankly, her voice piercing through the clutter in a way that may save the talks (some of the play is based on her own diaries, which President Carter had not even read).

But it’s a strong cast top to bottom. Thomas’ Carter is smiling when he’s being toughest and shows his exasperation only when praying. Khaled Nabawy seems stiff at first as Sadat — like a Disneyland animatronic president with a carefully coiffed likeness. But he becomes a more realized person as he talks of his boyhood. He seemed so real to Sadat’s widow, who was also present opening night, it was a strange moment of reunion at the curtain when she embraced him.

Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter, Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Khaled Nabawy as Anwar Sadat with Will Beckstrom and Will Hayes in 'Camp David' at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater March 21-May 4, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter, Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Khaled Nabawy as Anwar Sadat with Will Beckstrom and Will Hayes in ‘Camp David’ at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater March 21-May 4, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Ron Rifkin’s Begin may be the blood of the production. The familiar actor from stage and TV (including five seasons of “Alias”) feels the historical and cultural weight of his character and conveys an understanding why a leader of a people nearly wiped out 30 years earlier would be extra demanding of security. His change at the end and tears are deeply felt.

Tautly presented in 90 minutes with no intermission (the audience isn’t going to be allowed to leave any more than these leaders could leave before they had a settlement!), “Camp David” feels like the kind of production that could stand for years.

It’s a wonder, for all of the audacious goals of the intense sessions in a remote area, that it hasn’t been the subject of a major play before. Certainly, it has something to tell us about each of our responsibility to create a peaceful world, and it’s especially enlightening at at time when those same struggles continue today.

Director Molly Smith, Arena’s esteemed and artistic director, does what she can to enliven what could have been a long series of lecture points. Outdoor furniture emerges from beneath the ground (perhaps from Camp David’s fabled bunker); Carter doesn’t pace, he drives that golf cart back and forth at surprising speeds.

The production team is top notch throughout, from the original music and sound by the noted David Van Tieghem to Walt Spangler’s rural set design (whose only fault are trees that don’t quite touch the ground).

I can’t help but think “Camp David” will retain power for audiences for decades to come. But I have to say, it will likely never surpass the emotional knockout of the historic opening night.

Not only was it the first time a president had visited Arena Stage, strange as that is; it was the first time that any president and first lady had attended a play about themselves that they had not read beforehand.

The reaction from Carter, who turns 90 this year, and his wife, was all-embracing and emotional. They were led on stage to give hugs of approval. The audience stood not only to applaud the efforts of his much-maligned one term, but to also cheer him as essentially author of this bold leader trying to forge peace in the Maryland woods.

If Rifkin’s tears were theatrical in the play, they were real at this point.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Camp David runs through May 4 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth St. SW in Washington, D.C. For tickets call 202-488-3300 or visit online.

About Roger Catlin

Roger Catlin is a freelance arts writer in D.C. whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon.com and Bethesda Magazine. His blog, largely about TV, is at rogercatlin.com, Follow him at Twitter as @rcatlin.