Theater Review: "Camp David"

Ned Eisenberg as Menachem Begin, Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter, and Khaled Nabawy as Anwar Sadat
Photo credit:
Jim Cox

It was a long shot from the beginning. The players: a failed president (Jimmy Carter); an assassin and Nazi collaborator (Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt), and a terrorist (Menachem Begin, Prime Minister of Israel).

The task: To establish peace between Egypt and Israel.

Playwright Lawrence Wright (who came up with the above descriptions) memorializes that historic 1978 summit in the world premiere of “Camp David,” presented in association with Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage and running through June 19 at The Old Globe. Arena Stage’s Molly Smith directs.

The Camp David meeting followed four wars in the previous 30 years, including  the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel took over the Sinai and the Golan Heights from Egypt, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which the Arabs took back the Sinai.

Peace had been elusive for years, but President Carter was determined to at least try, and the talks were set for September at the Presidential Maryland retreat at Camp David. Carter was optimistic; his wife Rosalynn less so, but supportive and a great help to her husband.

This isn’t reportage, and the danger in portraying a summit meeting like this dramatically is the near inevitability of getting bogged down in the minutiae of negotiating points.

There’s a line between explaining the issues and wading so far into the weeds that you lose the audience; Wright manages to straddle it quite successfully in this 90-minute play.

Director Molly Smith has a terrific quartet of actors, three of whom are from the Arena Stage cast. Nabawy is a major film and TV star in Egypt; his Sadat is comfortable with Carter and willing to negotiate, but fearful of what it might mean for him personally.

New to the show is Ned Eisenberg, who splendidly plays Menachem Begin, the heavy in this group who seems to say no to almost everything.

But considering past history, it’s no wonder he wants ironclad security guarantees and no land surrenders.

Richard Thomas is effective as Carter, the man of religion, especially in scenes in which he argues with God and asks for guidance.

He tones down the Southern drawl and wide smile. This Jimmy smiles when he’s being tough and shows exasperation when talking to God.

Hallie Foote’s Rosalynn Carter is all Southern hospitality and steely determination, with a good helping of common sense and wise ideas.

One particularly affecting scene is Begin’s joke about prayer. It seems former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was praying one day when God said, “Why do you pray when you can just call?”

“Really?” said Rabin.

“Yes,” said God, “you just dial 002-GOD.  001 is the United States.”

Though the accords were signed and Sadat and Begin won the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize, all three men paid a price for peace.

Sadat was assassinated three years later by Muslim extremists who objected to the accords. Begin lived his last nine years in isolation. Carter lost his re-election bid.

Walt Spangler’s set offers crimson sunsets and golden sunrises, rolling cabins, pop-up couches and a conveyor belt to take a character offstage. Oh, and a great white golf cart.

Pat Collins’s lighting gives us crimson sunsets and golden sunrises, and Jeff Sugg contributes projections detailing the history of attempted peacemaking between these two countries.

Paul Tazewell’s costumes and David Van Tieghem’s sound design and original music make their own fine contributions.

There’s not a lot of action in “Camp David,” but this excellent cast and Smith’s taut direction combine to give a fine portrayal of one of those moments in history – 13 days that had to result in peace – and actually did, at least for a time.

The details

“Camp David” plays through June 19, 2016 at The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage,

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm: Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or theoldglobe.org