In a scene from the play "Oslo," PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (J Paul Nicholas) speaks with Israeli Director-General of the Foreign Ministry Uri Savir (Paris Hunter Paul) while Norwegian mediators Terje Rød-Larsen (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Mona Juul (Erica Sullivan) look on. (Photo/Kevin Berne)
In a scene from the play "Oslo," PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (J Paul Nicholas) speaks with Israeli Director-General of the Foreign Ministry Uri Savir (Paris Hunter Paul) while Norwegian mediators Terje Rød-Larsen (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Mona Juul (Erica Sullivan) look on. (Photo/Kevin Berne)

Tony-winning ‘Oslo’ explores personal risks taken for peace

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Remember the photo from 1993 that shows Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands at the White House with a beaming President Bill Clinton standing behind them? The occasion was the signing of the Oslo Accord, a bilateral agreement thought at the time to be a path to peace in the Middle East.

But you likely do not know the story of the Norwegian couple who helped orchestrate the nine months of secret meetings between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization leading to that handshake.

“Oslo,” winner of the 2017 Tony Award for best play, tells the compelling story of that couple’s role in facilitating the agreement. The West Coast premiere of playwright J.T. Rogers’ drama runs through Oct. 21 at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley.

“The play is a dramatic interpretation of what happened,” said Jasson Minadakis, artistic director at Marin Theatre Co. and director of this production. “It’s a political thriller that follows the talks, not from the Israeli perspective or the Palestinian perspective, but from the Norwegian perspective.”

“Oslo” director Jasson Minadakis
“Oslo” director Jasson Minadakis

Mona Juul, a Norwegian diplomat, and her husband, Terje Rød-Larsen, a social scientist, are the political power couple who brought together Israeli and Palestinian envoys for the top-secret talks, held in a castle stocked with whiskey. PLO officials Ahmed Qurei and Hassan Asfour, lawyer Joel Singer and Israeli leaders Yossi Beilin, Uri Savir and Shimon Peres are among the other participants portrayed in the play.

“It’s so important today to remember what people risked to find a peaceful way forward,” Minadakis said. “I hope ‘Oslo’ inspires us to take other risks like that, in both our personal lives and our national lives. This play continues to say it’s worth it, that it’s too soon to tell what may happen and it’s too soon to give up.”

While working on the production, Minadakis called on consultants to share their points of view about the Oslo Accord. Among them were Eran Kaplan, professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University, and Omar Dajani, co-director of the Global Center for Business and Development at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law.

Aaron Davidman, the actor who plays Israeli politician/negotiator Beilin, spent two hours talking with Beilin in Jerusalem. Davidman is the author and solo performer of the stage show “Wrestling Jerusalem,” a fictionalized representation of the manifold stakeholders in the ongoing conflict over Israel and the Palestinian territories. (The film version of his play will be screened at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 15 at the Lark Theater in Larkspur. Minadakis will introduce the movie and Davidman will be on hand for a post-screening discussion.)

Minadakis chose to present “Oslo” after reading just 14 pages of the script. “I fell in love with the character of Mona, the Norwegian diplomat, who narrates the play,” he said. “Also, like the British playwright David Edgar, J.T. Rogers is global in his perspective. Works by both of them follow the Shakespeare history plays in that they are epic in scope.”

Though the actors in “Oslo” speak about a different time, New York audiences who saw the production noticed parallels to current-day political differences in this country. Minadakis acknowledges the similarities. “Just as in 1993, the dialogue that is happening now includes a lot of ‘we don’t want to hear it’ and ‘we don’t want to believe it,’” he said.

“Yet the people portrayed in this play put their lives on the line to try to get to know each other, to get beyond public posturing, to go into a room together and have tough conversations in order to find a peaceful way forward. We have to ask ourselves if we are living up to those personal sacrifices, and we have to ask what individual citizens can do to make things progress.”

“Oslo,” through Oct. 21 at Marin Theatre Co., 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. $25-$60. marintheatre.org

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.