For a moment, in the early ’90s, it felt like the impossible might be possible: There might be peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The 1993 Oslo Accords even brought the countries’ respective leaders — Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat — together to shake hands on the White House lawn. It was a surreal scene.
Even more surreal? The true story of how one Norwegian couple secretly orchestrated the peace deal between these Middle Eastern blood rivals. That story comes to life on stage in Oslo — the 2017 Tony Award winner for Best Play — which closes out ACT Theatre’s 2018 season with a run from October 12 to November 11.
Playwright J.T. Rodgers’s gripping political thriller follows the husband-and-wife duo Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul — diplomats at Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences and the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, respectively — who set up back-channel communications that attempted to bridge the divide between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization on the personal level rather than as the organizational whole. They arranged for a secret meeting between the two sides at a castle near Oslo, keeping parties like the United States in the dark for fear they’d spoil the whole endeavor.
To get a sense of Oslo, we chatted with ACT artistic director John Langs about the play’s thrilling plot, staging the show at a time of increased Middle East tensions, and the role theater can play in addressing societal angst.
What drew you to Oslo and compelled you to bring it to the ACT stage?
John Langs: When I was choosing this season, we were thinking a lot about how people are sort of retreating behind their own ideologies these days. There is a lack of reaching out towards one another to solve problems. We are, more and more, finding the people who share our belief system and hanging out in an echo chamber with them, and sort of getting ourselves more entrenched. I wanted to pick stories for the year that really explored common ground or the seeking of common ground, and the space in between people that isn’t so black and white.
When I read Oslo, I felt like that’s exactly the point J.T. Rodgers is trying to make with this piece: that in one of the most fraught conflicts that the world has ever seen, there was a moment when people were reaching towards each other. To be reminded of that in this time, and how that happened, I thought was incredibly interesting, and a great way to end a season that had those values.
What aspect of Oslo gets you most excited?
It’s a political thriller. It is the Israel-Palestine conflict set to a two steps forward, one step back diplomatic thriller. I feel like it moves in a remarkably cinematic way. There’s a great deal of comedy in it, just the comedy of misunderstanding.
How do you go about making diplomatic back-dealing feel like an action thriller on the stage?
It had that sort of high-stakes political thriller built into the story. From the time it started to the time [Rabin and Arafat] got to the Rose Garden on the White House lawn, it was nine months. When the ball started rolling, it went incredibly fast. Ambassadors from both countries had to travel in secret, had to rent their own cars, traveled to this castle location in Norway — often leaving in the middle of the night.
And J.T. heard it from the mouths of the people that were there. I mean, Terje Rød-
Larsen and Mona Juul, the couple that began these negotiations, sat down with the playwright in New York City. And when they told him the story, his jaw hit the floor. He just couldn’t believe how much like a Jason Bourne film this whole thing was.
What do you see as the value in theater addressing these issues that we sometimes don’t feel comfortable speaking about in day-to-day conversations?
Our theaters are a place to practice empathy. It’s like going to the gym for your empathy. If the play is done right, you get to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and really consider the thoughts that they’re considering. Because you’re in the room with the person, with that beautiful focused energy of an audience that’s amplifying those feelings in a communal setting.
I go back to the days of Greek theater, where it was a civic responsibility to attend the theater, because there were lessons about what we were learning in the world: about pride, hubris, love, and survival. I think great theater is made up of those thorny stories that take you through something and don’t even necessarily tell you what to think, but they ask you to think.
How do you think the recent escalation in violence near the Gaza border will affect the way Oslo is received and perceived?
Things have certainly changed since the time we slated the show and when it will run. It’s one of the great opportunities and challenges of running a contemporary theater. Here we’ve got Oslo, which is about the peace accords — which is arguably the closest we’ve come to making peace between these two countries. And now we’re erupting into violence again. I think the play is a cry for peace. It’s a cry for radical listening. Even J.T., in the coda to the play, acknowledges that the peace that was so hard fought over in these nine months, through this diplomacy, fell apart almost a year after. He tries to point out the good that did come from the negotiations, while acknowledging that the pressures of the world made it a very imperfect solution. But it points towards hope. And I think that’s going to land with great poignancy in our audience based on what’s happening now.
That must be tough, balancing a hopeful message with the reality of the present.
J.T. puts the hopefulness and the reality in the voice of two different characters: Terje Rød-Larsen, the eternal optimist, always moving forward, [and] Mona Juul, his counterpart, a realist who gets them to tell it like it is. The tension between the two things is heartbreaking for the audience — bittersweet, I would say, is the way we leave the theater. But hopefully, [we’re] really thinking about, “My God, if these two people put their life on the line to get this close, there is a tiny window of hope.”