Plays based on history are appealing to diverse audiences. Mature people who were around at that time can identify with what was happening in one way or another. Younger playgoers can come to understand more of something they’ve heard about or wish to know.
Such is the case with The Old Globe Theatre’s Arena Stages production of Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright’s new play “Camp David,” directed by Arena Stages artistic director, Molly Smith.
Camp David revisits the turbulent 1970s when a much needed peace in the Middle East was about as possible as money growing on trees. Director Smith deftly guides the four actors representing those charged with such a heavy mission. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin will be portrayed by Broadway veteran Ned Eisenberg (“Golden Boy”). Tony and Emmy Award nominee Hallie Foote (“Dividing the Estate” on Broadway and at The Globe) steps into the shoes of Rosalynn Carter. Anwar Sadat is portrayed by award-winning Egyptian actor and activist Khaled Nabawy (“Kingdom of Heaven”). Richard Thomas returns to The Globe after his phenomenal role two years ago as Iago in “Othello,” as President Jimmy Carter.
Thomas admitted he was somewhat nervous when he performed the role for the “Camp David” world premiere in Washington, D.C., with President Carter in the audience.
In an interview, Thomas said playing a living character is always a unique task because you have an obligation to not imitate the person.
Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein said he finds Wright’s work exciting and moving, and sees that the issues Carter, Begin and Sadat wrestled with in 1978 are still present today in the Middle East. The subject, and Wright, were the main reasons Thomas took on his role, he said.
“I love the play and Larry,” Thomas said. “I’ve read his terrific plays and his pieces in The New Yorker over the years. He’s a journalist, playwright, screenwriter, and I knew he knows this stuff, especially about this part of the world. When I read this wonderful play, I was astonished at the depth of the dramaturgy and the dramatic qualities of the piece. He definitely has a gift.”
It’s a given about a play based on history that the ending is not a surprise. However, Thomas said this play has so much suspense and a feeling of what’s going to happen — yet it might go another way.
“That’s another beautiful slight-of-hand that Larry performs,” Thomas said. “Carter was having a rough time as president so this was probably the task most dear to him as he tried to affect peace in the Middle East. Not only is he having trouble on the domestic front, but he’s doing this thing that everyone thinks is a pipe dream and wishes he wouldn’t give his time to because the deck was stacked.”
Thomas finds it ironic that there were three heads of state spending 13 days in a private place with no press. “Can you imagine that happening today?” he said. “Yet all three men, particularly Carter and Sadat, were so strong ... the difficult process of getting an agreement was long, so it was a tribute to all of them that they didn’t give up.
“Rosalynn Carter was a big part of this action. She could do what the men couldn’t and became kind of a peacemaker between the peacemakers (‘which Larry likes to say’). Sadat got along great with Carter; they were like brothers, and their wives got along beautifully. Rosalynn was able to move between the three men and not just mollify, but listen to them and bring as much as she could to the conversation. She helped to drive Jimmy. Not so much as a facilitator, but an active member of the negotiations in terms of force. It was her idea to do the peace talks at Camp David.”
He added, “The need for resolution of problems stands out in this piece. I’m happy to be here with a good play, back with Larry and Barry, and to a place where I feel safe and had wonderful experiences.”
IF YOU GO: “Camp David,” runs May 13-June 19 on the Shiley Stage at The Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park, San Diego. Tickets from $29. (619) 234-5623. theoldglobe.org