“It is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are.”
Such is the central principle of American playwright J.T. Rogers’ play “Oslo,” as spoken by Terje Rød-Larsen (Mark Anderson Phillips) in the first scene.
First premiering in 2016, the Tony Award-winning play’s statements about humanity in the face of seemingly insurmountable political differences remain as vital and topical as they were two years ago. In its West Coast premiere at the Marin Theatre Company, director Jasson Minadakis honored the spirit of Rogers’ play, presenting a richly layered political drama that reminds us all that what makes us similar is more important than what divides us.
Based on historical events, “Oslo” chronicles the back-channel negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo Accords between the state of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The play follows the efforts of married Norwegian diplomats Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul (Erica Sullivan), who organized and facilitated secret meetings in Oslo between Israeli and Palestinian officials in order to make this deal possible.
The stakes of the story are set extremely high, but the array of diverse characters in “Oslo” refuse to be drowned out by the gargantuan political issues staring them in the face. The play uses the characters’ individual motivations as its focal point, anchoring broad global obstacles in tangible human ones. Marital disputes and drunken impressions delivered around the coffee table are staged with the same intensity and care as the drafting of legal documents and violent political confrontations.
Some of the most effective scenes in the play are arrestingly small in nature, such as the moment when Israeli professor Yair Hirschfeld (Brian Herndon) and Palestinian finance minister Ahmed Qurie (J Paul Nicholas) meet for the first time. The small shift in lighting and the air of recognition in both mens’ eyes imbue the scene with an incandescent wonder that transcends political grandstanding and feels unmistakably human.
The production’s commitment to capturing the inner lives of its characters unsurprisingly lends itself to praiseworthy performances. Sullivan’s performance as Juul carries the play, not only because her frequent asides to the audience frame the action of the narrative but because she expertly conveys the ever-present, needling doubts just below Juul’s rational surface. The moments when she allows these emotions to spill over are among the play’s most noteworthy.
Another highlight is Nicholas’ portrayal of Qurie, a role that allows Nicholas to maneuver through a variety of emotional extremes, ranging from vulnerability to violent rage, within any given scene.
Of course, the real historical consequences of the events described in “Oslo” cannot be contained in fiction. When the play comes to a solemn end, with the cast narrating the differing fates of their respective characters and countries, the audience is reminded of the enmity and bloodshed that continue to stalk the Middle East. It’s almost enough to break the spell of the past two and a half hours, an abrupt jerk back to garden-variety pessimism.
But not quite. The final lines of the play, delivered with impeccable vulnerability by Phillips as Rød-Larsen, directly plead with the audience to see these events not as a failure but as proof that pure hope can be enough to catalyze lasting social change. It’s admittedly a hard concept to buy into; not even all of the characters themselves believe it. And neither will every audience member.
But “Oslo,” with its stunning portrayal of the humanity that pervades even the harshest of political landscapes, makes it easy to believe. The play is a gift to its audiences, offering a glimpse into the past and, for those willing to invest in it, just a little more hope for a better future.
“Oslo” is playing at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley through Oct. 28.