January 18, 2019

‘Camp David’ recalls historic pact

Is peace possible? This question, simultaneously simplistic and complex, is not one normally asked of an actor. Yet for the past six weeks, veteran stage and film actor Ned Eisenberg has been living inside the skin of former Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Menachem Begin in a new play about the Camp David Accords. So he attempts a reply to the peace question, recognizing that any answer he might offer will be somewhat “Begin-esque.”

“What do you mean by ‘peace’?” asked Eisenberg, who re-creates Begin for eight performances a week in the West Coast run of “Camp David” at San Diego’s Old Globe. “When this play begins, Egypt and Israel are not at active war. Bullets are not flying. People are not in the field killing each other. There is a peace of sorts, but there is a cold war or a wariness, a distance, and I don’t know if that wariness, that distance and that preparation to mix it up will ever leave in this vicinity. I would hope it would, but I don’t know about that.”

“The writer of this play [Lawrence Wright] and our director, Molly Smith, say that there has not been a war between Egypt and Israel since they made this agreement, and that’s good,” Eisenberg continued. “But clearly there has not been peace in that entire region, and there has not been any lack of bloodletting and murder and mayhem there as a result of this real estate dispute.”

Wright’s play chronicles the unprecedented 1978 Camp David summit, during which Begin, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and U.S. President Jimmy Carter spent 13 days at the Maryland presidential compound and emerged with a peace treaty between the two longtime enemy nations. Although more than 100 delegates were present at the actual events, Begin, Carter, Sadat and First Lady Rosalynn Carter are the play’s only characters.

Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage commissioned Wright, an award-winning journalist and author, to create a play out of the Camp David summit. For it, the author interviewed both of the Carters and conducted extensive research in the Middle East, as well. In Israel, he toured the Irgun Museum and interviewed Begin’s longtime chief of staff, Yechiel Kadishai, as well as future Israeli Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak, both of whom were part of the Camp David delegation. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter attended the opening night of the show’s 2014 world premiere, as did Sadat’s widow, Jehan. 

Distilling the events of two weeks into a series of intimate encounters, Wright is looking to capture the historic nature of the summit and the personal conflicts surrounding the three protagonists. Carter was nearing the end of his first and only term in office and was looking for something to help preserve his legacy. Begin’s history included imprisonment for terrorist activities, and Sadat had been an assassin and a Nazi collaborator. These normally would not be the ideal people to resolve centuries of conflict, Wright said. And, indeed, after the first couple of days together, the tension between the two men was so great that Carter kept them apart as the negotiations progressed, and Sadat and Begin rarely met face to face.

“What these three men had in common was political courage, which unfortunately is a quality that’s hard to find, especially right now in that region,” said Wright, who followed up the play “Camp David” with
the nonfiction account, “Thirteen Days in September.” “The idea that peace is possible sometimes gets lost in all the cynicism
and despair.”

The Old Globe staging, which runs through June 19, bring backs most of the original cast under the direction again of  Smith, the Arena Stage artistic director. Returning are Richard Thomas (Jimmy Carter), Hallie Foote (Rosalynn Carter) and Egyptian film star Khaled Nabawy (Sadat). Wright has done some rewrites, and Smith said she welcomed the opportunity to revisit “Camp David.”

“I think the story of peace in the Middle East is even more powerful today than it was two years ago,” Smith said. “I’ve asked the actors to go deeper and darker and richer this time, and boy, have they.”

Eisenberg, the cast’s sole newcomer, won the role when original star Ron Rifkin was not available. Before accepting the role, however, Eisenberg sought assurances from Smith that Begin’s depiction in the play would be sympathetic, or at least not the villain of the peace. Given Carter’s camaraderie with Sadat before the Camp David summit, it would be too easy to skew the play to make Begin the obstructionist.

“Sometimes the way this issue presents itself, both in the world and in this play, is, ‘My goodness, wouldn’t things just be so much easier if this obdurate, obstinate Jew would just acquiesce and make peace with these people who seem so nice? Why doesn’t he just give in a little bit?’ ” Eisenberg said. “And that’s ridiculous in terms of the
history and the reality of what the situation was and is.”

“I told them, ‘I’m sure Menachem was used to being the other. It’s perfectly fine if I’m the other in this show,’ ” he added with a laugh. “They’re a lovely bunch of people, and they welcomed me in.” 

Wright is now working on a screenplay of “Camp David” for HBO and said he hopes to see the play produced in New York. Further down the line, he envisions a run of “Camp David” in the Middle East. Wright, who is not Jewish, performed the one-man show he wrote, “The Human Scale,” about the Gaza conflict, in Tel Aviv, and he believes audiences would embrace “Camp David” as well.

“My hope is that we can take it to Israel, and perhaps the UAE, and as well as New York and wherever else we can wander with that production,” Wright said. “I want to put an idea into the conversation that peace is not impossible.”

“Camp David” runs through June 19 at the Old Globe in San Diego. Visit