TimeLine's 'Oslo' a galvanizing examination of Middle East peacemaking
"Oslo" -- ★ ★ ★ ½
"Oslo," the Tony Award-winning political drama chronicling clandestine Middle East peacemaking efforts during the early 1990s, concludes with a failure.
In the coda to his gripping, fact-based drama depicting the herculean efforts by Israelis, Palestinians and Norwegians to negotiate a groundwork for peace, playwright J.T. Rogers reveals what we already know. That the peace heralded by Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin signing the Oslo Declaration of Principles (known as the Oslo Accords) never materialized
Yet Rogers' play, in an invigorating TimeLine Theatre revival directed by Nick Bowling, ends with an expression of optimism so genuine as to convince even a cynic that peace is indeed possible.
Rogers sets the play during the early 1990s and centers it on a real-life Norwegian couple: academic Terje Rød-Larsen (detailed, complex work by Scott Parkinson), head of a social research institute and his diplomat wife, Mona Juul. She's played by the composed, compassionate Bria Sudia, who also serves as the play's narrator.
Unbeknown to Mona's boss, foreign affairs minister Johan Jørgen Holst (David Parkes), the couple arrange for unofficial peace negotiations between the Israelis and members of the PLO. Most of the meetings take place at an estate outside Oslo, which designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec conjures with a few tastefully understated furniture pieces covered in ice blue velvet.
Mike Tutaj's projections evoke other locales, including conflict zones and, in "Oslo's" bittersweet coda, the White House, where the accords were signed on Sept. 13, 1993.
At the time, Israeli law prohibited contact with PLO members. To get around the prohibition, the Israeli delegation includes a pair of affable academics: the rumpled Haifa University professor Yair Hirschfeld (Ron E. Rains) and historian/policy expert Ron Pundak (Bernard Balbot). Representing the PLO is Communist sympathizer Hassan Asfour (Amro Salama) and the delegation leader, finance minister Ahmed Qurie (eloquently played by Anish Jethmalani) who allows hope to overcome his reserve.
Of course, the road to peace isn't smooth. As negotiations progress, the Palestinians demand a diplomatic "upgrade." He is Uri Savir, an Israeli foreign ministry official (the brusque, dynamic Jed Feder). A late addition to the delegation is Joel Singer (Elmhurst native Tom Hickey), a heavyweight Israeli attorney for a prestigious, Washington, D.C., law firm.
Between establishing self-government principles that will provide a framework for peace, the men share stories and trade jokes. Those moments -- several involving alcohol and one blissful interlude spent savoring waffles -- help form the personal connections that make peace possible.
Rogers makes that clear in this droll, erudite drama, which makes diplomacy exciting. That said, the play is on the talky side. And yet "Oslo" is propelled by a sense of urgency. Bowling masterfully exploits that tension, creating moments where it felt as if audience members were holding their breath. That's no small accomplishment, making a familiar failure suspenseful.
Bowling does it thanks to the outsize talent of his 13-person cast, which includes Juliet Hart, who does yeoman's work playing diplomats and domestics. Much of the heavy lifting falls to Sudia and Parkinson, perfectly cast as idealists determined to alter history, even if their efforts don't unfold as planned.
An accomplishment poignantly expressed in the handshake between Qurie and Savir at the end of Act I. Trailed by Mona and Terje, the two negotiators walk in the estate's snow-covered woods looking for common ground.
"Our peoples live in the past, both obsessing over what we have lost," says Savir. "Let's find a way to live in the present, together."
The play concludes with Savir's proposal becoming reality. In the play's final frenetic moments, as tension-filled as anything I've seen on stage in recent memory, Qurie confirms that Arafat and the PLO will recognize Israel's right to exist at the same time Israel's foreign minister Shimon Peres (Rains) agrees to recognize the PLO as the Palestinians' representative.
That hard-won agreement failed to end the Middle East conflict. But, as Terje observes, peace remains a possibility. One hopes.
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Location: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 20. No 2 p.m. show Sept. 25. No 7:30 p.m. show Oct. 6, 13 and 20
Running time: About 2 hours 50 minutes, including intermission
Parking: $14 in the adjacent Water Tower Place parking garage with theater validation
Rating: For adults; includes strong language, mature subject matter, references to violence