by Carol Rocamora

September 13, 1993: President William Clinton stands in the White House Rose Garden, watching two mortal enemies –their nations drenched in each other’s blood – shake hands. They are Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and they’ve just signed the historic Oslo Peace Accord.


It’s one of the iconic images of our times, and yet the truth behind it has remained hidden – until now. Two Norwegian diplomats, Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul, had created a clandestine back channel, facilitating secret conversations between Israelis and Palestinians that violated their laws, protocols and diplomatic precedents, putting everyone involved at extreme risk. The result was a momentous agreement that till that day seemed downright impossible.


When American playwright J. T. Rogers learned of this truth (through a conversation with the Norwegian couple), he knew this would be a play he had to write.  “I am awed by the personal and political courage it took,” he told The New York Times, expressing admiration for these unsung heroes. “It is a moment of history that I do not want forgotten.”


The result is Oslo, a riveting political play now playing at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre. Its scope is ambitious, employing 21 characters, multiple locations, and three hours to dramatize the secret negotiations that led up to that historical moment in the Rose Garden.


The story begins with Rod-Larsen’s deep-seated conviction that if you can get an Israeli and a Palestinian in a room together alone, dealing with one issue at a time, “you will change the world.” As such a meeting was officially forbidden by both sides at the time, Rod-Larsen had to recruit non-officials and carry out his plan in top secret. In the series of scenes, narrated by Rod-Larsen and Juul, we watch these intrepid Norwegians recruit two Israeli professors with no diplomatic experience to agree to meet with non-authorized Palestinian counterparts.


The first meeting is held in an 800-year-old Norwegian castle on January 20, 1993 in an atmosphere of extreme hostility. It lasts two and a half days with no break, in the midst of a wild snowstorm. (“It’s a true tragedy that we were approached by the Norwegians and not the Californians,” says one negotiator ironically.)


But the faith of the Norwegians – standing outside those closed doors – never wavers. As Juul says: “Two men in a room exchange handshakes and history begins to change.”


As negotiations continue, the tension mounts. The secret sessions have been leaked to the Americans; there are international repercussions, the Norwegians are in deep trouble, and the meetings are in peril. And yet against all odds, a remarkable relationship evolved between the negotiators, notably between two adversaries who discover they each have a daughter named Maya. “Our peoples live in the past. Let us find a way to live in the present, together,” says one side. “We four will forge a peace or there will be no peace,” says another. “Stay in the room and find way forward,” says Juul at one perilous point.


Ultimately, the unimaginable becomes reality. High echelon government negotiators take over. Israel agrees to give up Gaza and Jericho, and accept the PLO as the official representative of the Palestinian people; Palestine agrees to accept the legitimacy of the State of Israel.


Seamlessly directed by the skillful Bartlett Sher, the 12-actor ensemble offers superb performances, including Jefferson Mays as an idealistic Rod-Larsen, Jennifer Ehle as a compassionate Juul, Dariush Kashani as a soulful Hassan Asfour, and Michael Aronov as a flamboyant Uri Savir.


Rogers offers a tragic coda to the story, forecasting the violent conflict that continues after 1993 (Rabin’s assassination, the second Intifada, the Gaza Wars, etc.). “I’m struggling to know if what we did and how we did it was right,” says Juul ruefully.   What’s “right” is the passionate commitment that Rogers has made to telling this story, showing that personal acts of heroism can indeed make a difference – if only two enemies would sit down in a room together and talk.


Like other recent compelling historical plays (e. g. Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen), Oslo offers lessons to be learned, if only we would heed them.


J.T. Roger’s Oslo, directed by Bartlett Sher, at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, now through August 28.

Photos: T. Charles Erickson

Oslo will move to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in the Spring of 2017. Tickets on sale July 28.