Acclaimed play ‘Oslo’ comes to The Rep

Kathleen Wise and Jim Poulos star in the critically acclaimed play ‘Oslo’ at the Repertory Theatre through March 3rd. Photo by Patrick Lanham

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chef Emeritus

‘Oslo,’ the widely acclaimed play by  J.T. Rogers, which won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Play, is coming to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s Main Stage Feb. 6-March 3.

The fact-based play deals with the ill-fated peace process between Israel and the Palestinians  through the eyes of the idealistic Norwegian couple who opened up the back channel for secret talks between the Israel government headed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the Palestine Liberation Organization under its mercurial chairman, Yasser Arafat.

The NJT production will be directed by Steven Woolf, who is completing his final season as artistic director of the company. Woolf has never shied away from controversy, having taken on and personally directed such works as “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” by Frances Goodrich and Andrew Hackett.

Woolf says “Oslo” shows how “ordinary people can do extraordinary things.” Twenty-five years ago, the world was taken by surprise when it was revealed that back-channel talks had been going on for the better part of 1993 between Israel and the PLO.  With the heroic assistance of a well-meaning and peace-seeking Norwegian couple, Israel and the PLO agreed to recognize one another and their rights to coexist within the context of a two-state solution.

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Amid great fanfare and an almost delirious optimism, a historic Declaration of Principles was signed on the south lawn of the White House on Sept. 13, 1993, on the very table on which the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty on March 26, 1979.

The Egypt-Israel peace process was started when Sadat indicated his desire in 1977 to travel to Israel and address the Knesset on his desire for peace.  

When Begin was asked for a comment, he said Sadat would be “welcomed with open arms.”

The Israel-Egypt talks were overseen by then President Jimmy Carter at the presidential retreat at Camp David.  It was clear that despite pressure from hardliners in their respective camps, both Begin and Sadat genuinely wanted to achieve peace—and so the process succeeded.

Tragically, while Arafat went through the motions in his face-to-face talks with Rabin and with the patient assistance of then-President Bill Clinton, it was clear that he could not switch off his career as head of the PLO and Fatah, both terrorist organizations, to move towards peace.

Clinton refused at first to take Arafat’s “no” for an answer. In July 2000, he invited Ehud Barak, the new Israeli Prime Minister and Arafat to Camp David in a last ditch effort to achieve a deal.

Once again, Arafat refused, spurning peace in favor of renewed terrorist attacks against Israel, which he called “intifada,” or a “shaking off.”

Barak, the most highly decorated Israeli soldier in its history, was the last Labor Party prime minister of Israel.  He devoted every day of his tenure to seeking an agreement with Arafat, including acceptance of a Clinton proposal to grant the Palestinians an independent state in 96 percent of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip. Clinton, who devoted much of his presidency to achieving success for Oslo, directly blamed Arafat for its failure.

Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, lacks the support among Palestinians to make a deal he would accept workable among the Palestinians—and the Gaza Strip is led by Hamas, an organization classified as a terrorist group by our State Department.

President Donald Trump has promised to propose a “deal of the century” to achieve Israel-Palestinian peace.  In order for him to succeed, a modern miracle might have to occur in the ancient land of miracles.

The saddest of all words is: “It might have been.”