Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, returned to Washington on Thursday night to open a new play at Arena Stage about one of their greatest achievements in the White House. "Camp David" retraces 13 days of tense negotiations in 1978 at the presidential retreat in Maryland that produced an unlikely but lasting peace agreement.
By the time the lights came up, the former US president had tears in his eyes and was hugging actor Richard Thomas who played him on stage. The Carters cooperated in making the play, providing their diaries and sitting for interviews, but did not review or edit on the script.
While a story of the remarkable peace accord may at first sound like theater for political wonks, the drama of the negotiations and characters involved make for a compelling story that's raw with emotion, real and ever relevant to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.
Before the show, Carter said the 13 days he spent secluded with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat were among the most dramatic of his life.
"We were three men of faith," Carter said. "I think that our common faith worshipping the same God in different ways was a factor that broke the barriers that did exist between us."
Sadat's widow, Jehan Sadat, also attended the opening in Washington and joined the cast on stage at the end.
Carter said he felt a higher calling to make peace his top priority as president, even though "no one ever asked me to try to bring peace to Israel." The Georgia farmer-turned-governor and president had also taught Sunday school all his life.
Cast of 'Camp David' on-stage
The prospects for peace were grim, though, considering Sadat was a former Nazi collaborator and Begin had been considered a terrorist. After just three days, Carter had to separate them to prevent a collapse in the talks.
It was those characters that convinced former White House communications director Gerald Rafshoon decades ago that the story could be a great movie, though he couldn't sell it to Hollywood. But Rafshoon eventually resurrected the idea and made his pitch to Arena Stage for the story of an orthodox Jew, devout Muslim and born-again Christian going behind closed doors and coming out with an enduring peace treaty.
Sadat, Carter, and Begin at Camp David in 1978 (Photo: AP)
"There's so much emotion. There's so much risk. And I saw that as ultimate drama," Rafshoon said. "It is not a negotiation. It is a personal story."
Each man put everything on the line, he said. In the aftermath of the Camp David Accords, Carter lost his bid for re-election, Sadat lost his life to an assassin, and Begin fell into political obscurity.
But could such diplomatic talks be entertaining theater?
For Molly Smith, the artistic director at Arena Stage who is directing the play, it was a no brainer. The theater has made it a priority to commission new works about US presidents.
"If it was just political wonks talking, I don't think it would be so interesting," she said. "But when it is three leaders who clearly put their lives and their careers and their countries on the line to create this agreement, that's great theater."
Arena commissioned journalist Lawrence Wright as playwright and sent him to Georgia to interview the Carters and to Israel and Egypt to talk with surviving members of their delegations.
Still, Wright had reservations about the project at first. The hardest thing was trying to figure out who would be in the play and who would be left out from the more than 100 who were at Camp David.
"It was the addition of Rosalynn Carter that really made it into a play," Wright said. "She made peace among the peacemakers."
In the production, Thomas plays President Carter, Ron Rifkin plays Begin and Egyptian actor Khaled Nabawy plays Sadat. Hallie Foote plays Rosalynn Carter, relieving some of the tension with laughs and practical advice.
In Carter, Thomas said he found an interesting mix of idealism and pragmatism.
"Here you have a man whose idealism, I think, is very genuine," he said. "So there is this warmth but there is also steel underneath it, so getting those two things together is one of the challenges and one of the pleasures of playing the part."