In September of 1978, President Jimmy Carter hosted Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at the historic Camp David. President Carter was desperate to make peace between the two warring nations. Egypt, at the time, had the largest population of all the Arab countries, and a rich and diversified economy. Israel, on the other hand, was, and remains the United States’ most trusted strategic ally in the region. The meeting is dramatized in the theatrical production, “Camp David,” which enjoyed a highly acclaimed west coast premiere at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. The play stars Richard Thomas, Ned Eisenberg, Khaled Nabawy and Hallie Foote.
One of the most striking aspects of the story is the small cast. There are only six roles in the play, and only four have lines. These four include the three heads of state, and the First Lady Rosalynn Carter (FOOTE). A very powerful scene occurs near the onset of the play, when the three leaders begin to pray. Carter (THOMAS), on his knees with his hands clenched, gives voice to all the pressures facing him, and asks G-d for help. Begin (EISENBERG), meanwhile, is wrapping tefillin and murmuring in Hebrew, while Sadat (NABAWY) lies prostrate on a prayer rug.
The set that brings the famed country retreat to life is convincing yet minimalist. There is a cabin toward the back (stage) right, which doubles as both Sadat’s and the Carters’ lodgings (alternating between Egyptian and American flags to distinguish the two.) Tree trunks descend from the ceiling for all the scenes that take place outdoors. Most of the action unfolds as Carter, Begin, and Sadat sit in patio chairs, sipping tea brewed by the First Lady. The idyllic setting is a perfect juxtaposition to the hostile meeting being conducted.
First Lady Rosalynn’s interruptions serve as comic relief during some of the tensest arguments. There are also very effective scenes that depict the First Lady talking one-on-one with Begin and Sadat. These heart-to-heart moments give the audience, as well as the characters, insights into the backgrounds that shaped the involved parties. Through one of these interactions, we learn that Begin’s family perished in the Holocaust. In another scene we learn that Sadat had a brother who was killed during the Yom Kippur War. The scenes with the First Lady are really the glue that holds the play together; her quips and interruptions moving the plot along, even when successful resolution appears most bleak.
Cathartic release comes at the end, when all three parties sign the treaty at the White House. The climax of the play should not be a surprise (or spoiler) for anyone with a general knowledge of the conflict, although it did seem that the audience, as a whole, had a mixed level of familiarity with the history. There were plenty of gasps when the post-curtain epilogue revealed that Sadat was assassinated shortly upon returning to Egypt after making peace with Israel.
Perry Fein is a writer and contributing editor to Jlife.