Millions watched on TV as President Bill Clinton led Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat to shake hands on the White House lawn in September 1993. Moments earlier, the two leaders had signed the Oslo Accords – a document laying the groundwork for two nations to exist on a tiny parcel of land.
In truth, the famous handshake did not begin with these world leaders. Credit instead belongs to names and faces that few people would recognize. Produced by TimeLine Theatre Company and presented by Broadway in Chicago at the Broadway Playhouse, J.T. Rogers’ OSLO sets the record straight. The path that led to the “Declaration of Principles” agreement began with a Norwegian couple – diplomats Terje Rod-Larsen (Scott Parkinson) and Mona Juul (Bri Sudia) -- who created a secret channel for representatives from Israel and the PLO to hammer out a two-state solution in Borregaard Manor outside Oslo.
OSLO does Middle East peace Norwegian style
On a trip to Israel, Larsen and Juul witness two boys -- one Palestinian, one Israeli -- aiming guns at each other. An enveloping projection on the Broadway Playhouse stage shows the silhouettes of these very young men, prompting Larsen and Juul to ask themselves if something could be done to change the narrative.
And so they try, using Larsen’s approach of forging personal bonds between adversaries outside the negotiating room to reduce mistrust within it. It’s a long and winding road. Not only do they dodge Norwegian, Israeli and Palestinian leadership but American as well. For nearly three hours, OSLO details the steps along the way -- the fragile sparks of diplomacy, the white lies told to keep the process away from those who would stop it, the conflicts that had to be quelled to keep things moving ahead. A lot of Johnny Walker Black is consumed. A lot of humor endears us to characters who are frequently hostile.
TimeLine production’s handshake in a snowfall
There are crackling and enlightening scenes for everyone onstage, from Borregaard Manor’s ebullient housekeeper (Juliet Hart) defusing tension with traditional Norwegian waffles to an Israeli and a Palestinian – neither accustomed to cold weather – shaking hands in a snowfall as they agree to what was then forbidden by their respective governments.
For this viewer, however, the play involves too much of the same dynamic – rivals putting up road blocks while Larsen and Juul strategize to overcome them. Their lively marriage anchors everything yet, in this production, its soul stays somewhat out of reach. OSLO’s great strength is its presentation of an under-told backstory in contemporary Middle Eastern history. For those who are curious to learn how enemies came to accept each other's legitimacy long enough to craft an accord, the play will satisfy. The years since the September 1993 handshake have all but destroyed any prospect of Middle East peace. OSLO is a reminder of what can happen when courageous people invest in a vision for a better future.
Scott Parkinson, Bri Sudia, Anish Jethmalani, Jed Feder, Bernard Balbot, Ron E. Rains, Amro Salama, Stef Tovar, Bassam Abdelfattah, Tom Hickey, Victor Holstein, Juliet Hart, David Parkes.
J. T. Rogers (Playwright), Nick Bowling (Director), Jeffrey D. Kmiec (Scenic Designer), Jesse Klug (Lighting Designer), Christine Pascual (Costume Designer), Katie Cordts (Wig & Hair Designer), Andre Pluess (Sound Designer), Mike Tutaj (Projections Designer), Amy Peter (Properties Designer), Eva Breneman (Dialect Designer), Deborah Blumenthal (Co-Dramaturg), Maren Robinson (Co-Dramaturg), Jonathan Nook (Stage Manager), Mary Zanger (Assistant Stage Manager)
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About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows aired on BBC Radio 4 last season.