This stimulating, Tony Award-winning play by J.T. Rogers about the forging of the 1993 Oslo Accords conveys the hope that rational discourse, mutual understanding and joint compromise may be possible — even in one of the most politically polarized places in the world.
As peace in the Middle East seems like an ever more distant prospect, and the very concept of good-faith international diplomacy is under threat, watching the Tony Award-winning play “Oslo” is a bittersweet experience.
This crackling drama by J.T. Rogers about the forging of the 1993 Oslo Accords conveys the hope that rational discourse, mutual understanding and joint compromise may be possible — even in one of the most politically polarized places in the world. Not yet — but someday.
ACT Theatre’s Seattle premiere of the play, about a year after its much-honored Broadway run ended, is a timely move by ACT artistic head John Langs.
And his staging of “Oslo” affords nearly three hours of stimulating, absorbing theater.
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This docudrama is both a lively history lesson and an evenhanded study of what it takes to engineer a high-stakes agreement between fierce adversaries with much to lose. Rogers hews close to the historical record, while inventing much of what was actually said in the clandestine back-channel peace talks engineered by Mona Juul, an official in Norway’s foreign ministry, and her sociologist husband Terje Rød-Larsen, whom the playwright met through Bartlett Sher (“Oslo’s” original director) and interviewed at length.
Note that “Oslo” isn’t partisan: It tacitly implies both sides have valid arguments, and unfolds largely from the perspective of the pair who facilitated the agreement. Rød-Larsen instigates the plan for negotiations between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the state of Israel in the firm belief that his theory of diplomatic “gradualism” can succeed.
It is a deceptively simple, humanistic approach, about bringing adversaries together in a neutral place (here a château outside of Oslo), and encouraging them to form personal bonds by eating, drinking and socializing between intense work sessions to promote conciliation and mutual acceptance. “It is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are,” contends Rød-Larsen (an insistently idealistic academic, as enacted by Avery Clark).
Performed on a sleek, single set, in a series of encounters spread over months, “Oslo” is as talky as you’d expect a play about talks to be. So what is its revving dramatic motor? The sense that, at every turn, this important project could fall apart — due to long intractable disputes between Israelis and Palestinians, leaks to the press, or (God forbid) the Americans butting in.
Rød-Larsen and Juul set in motion their unorthodox plan by initially keeping Norway’s foreign minister (played by Darragh Kennan) in the dark, and secretly communicating through intermediaries with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
This requires much maneuvering, and some deception, often by phone. The course of events is periodically narrated by Juul, expertly played by Christine Marie Brown as a capable, calm but understandably anxious public servant and loving but skeptical wife — who quietly bristles whenever the machismo level of the forceful men around her spikes.
Representing the Palestinians in the initial sessions is Ahmed Qurie, the PLO finance minister in Arafat’s inner circle. A figure of wary dignity and intelligent authority in the fine-tooled portrayal by Victor Pappas, Qurie is accompanied by a glowering, didactically Marxist associate, Hassan Asfour (Wasim No’Mani).
These sober emissaries seem oddly matched, at first, with two gregarious, rumpled (and rather clownishly drawn) economics professors dispatched by Rabin. But as played by R. Hamilton Wright and MJ Sieber, it’s the profs who break the ice by cracking bad jokes, and a spirit of camaraderie develops.
After a rough agreement is hammered out over months, the Israeli delegation is ramped up with deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin (Mike Dooly); hard-nosed lawyer Joel Singer (Aaron Blakely) and the blunt, provocative legislator Uri Savir (Brandon O’Neill). Will their demands upend the deal before Beilin’s boss Shimon Peres (also Wright) even weighs in?
It’s gratifying to observe how fraught issues are resolved incrementally, including the mutual recognition of Palestinian and Israeli sovereignty as the cornerstone of a future two-state solution. Other critical issues are tabled for further talks. And we witness glimmers of kinship that will blossom into real friendships — as when Savir and Qurie realize both have daughters named Maya, for whom they wish a lasting peace.
Video footage of Rabin and Arafat at the triumphant signing of the Oslo Accord at the White House could have ended the play — but doesn’t. There’s a sobering afterword on how political forces, renewed bloodshed and mounting land disputes have undermined the treaty and peace process.
“Oslo” does not gloss over that painful irony. But it suggests that the jury’s still out on whether diplomatic “gradualism” can effect a lasting peace. It certainly seems worth another try.
“Oslo” by J.T. Rogers. Through Nov. 11; ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $27-$87; 206-292-7676, acttheatre.org