by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
Rehearsals began last week for the world premiere of Lawrence Wright's much-anticipated play, Camp David, about the thirteen tumultuous days, President Jimmy Carter (Emmy winner Richard Thomas) and his wife Rosalynn (Tony nominee Hallie Foote) hosted Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (Tony winner Ron Rifkin) and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (Khaled Nabawy) in an attempt to create the impossible: Peace in the Middle East.
Watch an excerpt of Artistic Director Molly Smith's welcome address to the company of
Camp David at first rehearsal. (Full text of speech below.)
VIDEO: Camp David First Reherasal.
While in the midst of Secretary of State John Kerry’s discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders about a Palestinian state and peaceful relationships, it’s amazing to look at the historic 13 days at Camp David when Carter, Begin and Sadat sat down to forge a peace between two nations that had been at war for over 2000 years, and at war constantly in the decade before the 1978 meetings. The peace agreement which came out of their meetings was forged because three leaders put themselves on the line personally, intellectually and spiritually.
So how did this project come to Arena?
I received a call from Rocco Landesman, the former Chair of the NEA, asking if Arena would be interested in creating a play about the Camp David Peace Accords. He told me Jerry Rafshoon, who had been Chief of Communications for President Carter, wanted to make a story for the stage about this complicated time in our collective histories. This hit the sweet spot for us at Arena because of our President’s Project. In DC we are the hometown to all American Presidents and will be producing a play every few seasons about the American Presidents and their families.
I spoke to Jerry Rafshoon, who is now serving as producer on this project. He promised to give us access to people who have been intimately involved in the story, and that has happened in many remarkable ways. We made the decision to ask Lawrence Wright to write the play. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for his book on Al Qaeda (The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11). He just wrote another strong-minded book on Scientology called Going Clear. And a new book — his nonfiction account called Camp David: How Peace Was Made. This is his fifth play. He has also written Fallaci (2013), The Human Scale (2010), My Trip to Al-Qaeda (2006–2007) and Sonny’s Last Shot (2005).
In the past year we’ve held three readings of the script in DC and New York. At each of the readings we’ve had reporters like Jim Lehr, Maureen Dowd, Chris Mathews and Sy Hersh — some of whom were involved in reporting on Camp David — to listen and give Larry their thoughts.
Jerry and Larry travelled to the Middle East to have interviews with people involved in 1978, who are still alive. Jerry and I visited President and Mrs. Carter this spring in their hometown of Plains, Georgia, for two days.
Happily, the Carter Center has opened their research materials to us. We have received incredible access to this story. Thank you, Jerry. Thank you, Larry. To say this is one of the most important stories we’ll put on our stage this season is a complete understatement.
In this city, in this time when our legislatures are deadlocked, it’s important to be reminded when people from very different cultures and perspectives sat down to forge an agreement.
The first choice Larry made when writing was inspirational: to write the story through four characters. There were well over 100 advisors, experts from Egypt, Israel and the U.S. at Camp David. In our play Rosalynn is both a peacemaker between the men making peace and brings in the outside world as she travels back and forth to the White House.
Larry has written the meat of the conflict through these four remarkably complex people and in our play we have four brilliant actors: Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter; Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin; Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter and Khaled Nabawy as Anwar Sadat.
We want to discover the essence of each one of these characters, not the wax museum version but the beating heart of who they are, interpreted through the talents of each of these artists. We want to look into the souls of each of these people and understand the mythic sacrifice each made through their own tenacity and will, while carrying the weight of history on their collective shoulders.
Our story takes place at Camp David. The images of Camp David remind me of a Boy Scout Camp and yet surrounding it is the conflict, devastation and bloodshed in the Middle East. Our job within the world of the play is to give context for both.
The play is an intense argument between three men of faith: Jewish, Christian and Muslim, who all intimately knew war and bloodshed in their bones through the military or as freedom fighters. This morning NPR reported on the beginning of negotiations with Iran over a permanent agreement on its nuclear program — we only get the headlines of these fierce negotiations. Larry takes us inside to show us how peace agreements are actually forged. I use the word forged because of the fire and metal it took to create this document. Our challenge will be activating it physically and being able to quickly change scenes, since we move from a porch to a party to Gettysburg, with very little time in between. Camp David is a fast-paced 90 minutes without an intermission.
We are in Washington, DC and official Washington comes to see productions at Arena. We are only 90 minutes away from Camp David and we sometimes see helicopters pass by Arena Stage on their way to Camp David. I’d like to viscerally remind them of a time when politicians risked their lives and careers to create an agreement.
This moment was a huge event with so many ramifications — we haven’t had a war between Egypt and Israel since, and there were four wars within the decade before the peace agreement. Audiences will get an inside look at these characters’ complicated humanity and will get an inside view on what really happens in creating an agreement.
(Photo: Gerald Rafshoon (President Carter's Communications Director), Ron Rifkin (Menachem Begin), Richard Thomas (Jimmy Carter), Molly Smith (Director), Hallie Foote (Rosalynn Carter), Lawrence Wright (Playwright) and Khaled Nabawy (Anwar Sadat).)