Tense negotiations, strong personalities and psychological drama are reimagined in the new play “Fourteen Days in July,” written by Lewis Schrager, based on Ambassador Dennis Ross’ memoir “The Missing Peace,” the account of his participation in the Clinton administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from 1992 to 2000. The premiere is Aug. 15 and runs for two weekends as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival.
Schrager, in collaboration over several months with director and festival founder Barry Feinstein, distilled events from the intense two-week
period at Camp David in 2000 into to a two-hour play packed with 11 powerful characters — Ehud Barak, Yasser Arafat, Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright and President Bill Clinton among them, and, of course, Ambassador Ross.
“One of the reasons I wrote it is that I was frustrated with the pace of negotiations,” said Schrager, who is a physician and vice president of scientific affairs at Aeras, a nonprofit that develops tuberculosis vaccines. He also teaches during intercession at Johns Hopkins University and said, “I write in my spare time, it’s my therapy.” He has also written books and other plays.
Schrager admits that with the current events in the Middle East, the play has taken on a greater significance in terms of the timing of its production, but he is not surprised the story of seemingly impossible peace negotiations has been, and is, still relevant.
“The reason I think this play is very important is because the Camp David negotiations resulted in a proposed settlement. That is what peace looks like,” Schrager asserted. “It’s not a mystery. That is as good as it’s going to get. And what you need is leadership on the part of the Israelis and Palestinians to get back to where we were in 2000.”
Schrager believes the facts of the agreement “put on the table in 2000” have been forgotten by many people, including government leaders, journalists and even the public. He is an educator at heart and believes people learn best if content is engaging and entertaining, not didactic; he hopes to achieve that with his play. It’s also important to him to remain objective in his role as playwright, he said, regarding the political content of the story as well as a great respect he holds for Ross as a trusted politician and a close friend.
“It is an interesting experience to have a Sunday afternoon basketball practice interrupted by a phone call by Yasser Arafat or Yitzchak Rabin.” recalled Schrager of time spent with Ross playing on Rockville’s Kol Shalom Congregation basketball team, where they are both still members. “But that was the nature of the game. We’ve been friends ever since, and I cherish that friendship,” which began about 20 years ago when Ross was actively involved in the peace negotiations, he added.
When Schrager submitted his play to the Baltimore Playwrights Festival it wasn’t initially chosen for production. Feinstein and wife Kathleen Barber’s Theatrical Mining Company chose some of the stronger plays that weren’t selected and experimented with readings and improvisation to develop them further. That process culminated with an evening in which a critical scene of each play was performed. Schrager’s script was chosen from that process, though it continued to evolve before its final version.
“Lew [Schrager] was trying to get all 14 days in July into the play,” recalled Feinstein of an earlier script version during their collaboration. “All he really had to do was get the essential elements and get the power of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians and how prescient that 2000 summit was … and I’m not giving away anything by saying [the summit] didn’t succeed, and Lew has captured the tragedy of that moment.”
Schrager pored over Ross’s book and the history, beginning well before the Camp David negotiations for about a year. Then he had to “figure out how you take a situation that has about 36 or 38 different negotiators,” he said, “and boil it down to a few representative negotiators, demonstrative of the negotiation process, but also [include] the personal stakes and the psychological drama” that played out during the two weeks of arduous negotiations.
Feinstein chose the play for how the important historical content and characters were powerfully translated to stage. It’s important, he said, for people to understand where and why those leaders missed and what they didn’t fully comprehend of the negotiation process. “Sometimes hate wins out over any kind of rational thinking. Hate and revenge and the need to make things right, when the cost is so great.”
Feinstein continued, “That’s what theater does, it gives you a catharsis — the writer, the actor — but the audience gets to be right in there and have all those feelings and then talk about them.”
Ross will attend the Aug. 23 performance and will participate in a post-show discussion. “Fourteen Days in July” will be performed in an intimate black-box 44-seat theater on the Notre Dame campus, so the audience will feel the explosiveness of the content, Feinstein said.
“A great play does that for you,” Feinstein added. “Sometimes you walk out [of the theater] and you can’t get the characters, the ideas that were expressed, the drama that came through, you can’t get them out of your mind, you have to talk to people about it.”
“Fourteen Days in July”
- August 15-17, 22-24 and 29-31. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m.
- Former Ambassador Dennis Ross will attend the Aug. 23 performance and participate in a post-show discussion.
- LeClerc Hall on the campus of Notre Dame of Maryland University4701 N. Charles St.in Baltimore.
- Tickets $10 here.
- Tickets and more information can be obtained at theatricalmining.org or call 410-294-8956.