In the 1970s, when the Camp David Accords were signed, it seemed like a miracle. “Peace in the Middle East,” especially between Egypt and Israel, seemed impossible. Getting any kind of agreement between people with a history of hatred going back centuries smacked of a kind of idealism that seemed, well, hubristic. But that didn’t stop President Jimmy Carter from trying. Lawrence Wright’s Camp David, deftly directed by Oskar Eustis, takes us back to the weeks that Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat met with Carter at the rustic retreat in the Maryland mountains in 1978.
Staged in the Neuhaus Theatre, this theater-in-the-round configuration is perfect for negotiations that go in circles until you can hardly stand it. Before any actors appeared, there was a large map of the Middle East covering almost the entire floor. Then, that map rises to the top of the theater and we never see it again. Why? Instead, we are looking at an upside-down topical depiction of the layout of Camp David, although that wasn’t immediately obvious to me. But maybe this is emblematic of this play in general: you get excited, and then things kind of disappear and it smacks of anticlimax. We know what is happening, but is the drama of frustrating back and forth negotiations enough?
What is more than enough, though, is the excellent acting of this ensemble cast. The accent coaches deserve a medal. Stephen Thorne is superlative as Jimmy Carter (heck—he even looks like him!), and if you close your eyes, he really does sound just like the peanut-farmer-turned-president. I know—I was alive then. Same with Rebecca Brooksher as Rosalynn Carter. Broohsher has everything down—Rosalynn Carter’s posture, her phrasing, her ability to say something devastating without alienating her listener. Bravo to these two actors.
Same can be said for Elijah Alexander as Anwar Sadat, and Jordan Lage as Menachem Begin. Both are completely believable. Their colleagues in the company give memorable performances as Moshe Dayan (Mark Zimmerman) and Mohammed Ibrahim Kamel (Sam Khazai). And the dissent within the ranks of each diplomatic contingent is one of the most interesting aspects of the play, revealing the profundity of the discord not only between countries, but within their own respective political ranks concerning foreign policy.
Also wonderful are the acoustics with shooting artillery, the lighting, and the costumes, which are time-period perfect. All good.
However, history plays are tricky—are you writing them to pay homage to your heroes? Are you trying to illuminate historical truth, as messy or boring or frustrating as that may be? The problem might be that every history play is vulnerable to the possibility of unintended consequences, and that is the caveat I have for Camp David.
In a play heavy with admiration for Carter (and it is hard to fault him for trying to broker peace in a broken world), we are constantly reminded of his failures. He can’t even manage his peanut farm in Georgia, yet he thinks he can convince Israelis to make peace with their sworn enemies. He thinks Egypt will learn to love the Jewish people because everyone has grandkids in common or something. While the country was mired in inflation, strikes, and low morale on many fronts, Carter privileged his idealism over domestic affairs, a decision that alienated many Americans. Camp David presents Carter as incredibly naïve—on almost everything. It’s not just that he doesn’t understand the culture and history of the Middle East, he actively refuses to factor it in to his diplomacy. He whines when he doesn’t get his way, and it is hard to watch.
There is the sound of a screech owl perhaps for symbolic wisdom in the play, but nothing can save the Carters from their Plains, Georgia, view of the world. They behave as if life is one big Sunday school class, and if only their visiting friends would see the light and the right verse, then all the trouble in River City would just float away. Wright even has Jimmy Carter looking up vocabulary in a dictionary, I kid you not. The playwright presents Carter as the worst of all idealists: he doesn’t care what might be around the corner, as long as he can claim he was successful for the Camp David experiment. Even more upsetting is the idea that Rosalynn Carter was this hidden diplomatic genius because she could serve sweet tea and a comeback, although she provides much needed comic relief throughout the play.
Camp David reminds us that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, and that it is really hard to negotiate with people who are “flexible on everything—except land and sovereignty.” This play also points out the remarkable fact that the Camp David Accords have lasted without serious infractions for over four decades. But the history that is elided, such as the billions of dollars in U.S. aid to both Israel and Egypt that came out of these accords, is a striking reminder that this is selective history, and such omissions are as glaring as the unlikely image of Rosalynn Carter talking to a foreign leader in a bathrobe. The worst part is when Rosalynn Carter ends the play by simply explaining that Sadat was assassinated and Begin died alone, but her husband certainly did a great job.
It’s a little too “awe shucks” of a history play for me, but the actors step up to the plate, and that made Camp David worth the trip down memory lane.