The actress’s participation in Arena’s 2013-14 season — on paper one of the most intriguing of Molly Smith’s 15 years at the helm of Washington’s flagship theater company — is by no means the only big-name news in the lineup. Actors Bill Pullman, Estelle Parsons, Stephen Spinella and Maurice Hines; playwright Lawrence Wright; choreographer Liz Lerman and directors Moises Kaufman, Jeff Calhoun and Kenny Leon all figure in a season that features four world premieres, two other new plays and a lot of drama steeped in 19th- and 20th-century history.
With plays tackling the Civil War, the Camp David peace accords, the war in Afghanistan and the career of Paul Robeson, the new Arena season of nine productions from September to June 2014 is a daring embrace of topical complexity. (For a change of pace, it also encompasses a revival of the jukebox revue “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.”) Its parameters feel more sleekly thematic than Arena’s current season, dominated by popular old titles (“My Fair Lady”) and plays of recent Broadway vintage (“Good People,” “Other Desert Cities,” “The Mountaintop,” “Metamorphoses”).
Smith, who will direct three of the nine productions — including Turner in an in-the-round “Mother Courage” (Jan. 31 to March 9, 2014) — says the season exemplifies the harvesting of talent that occurs through the sowing over time of relationships.
“What you’re seeing and feeling is that it’s all part of the Arena tribe,” Smith said.
For instance, Wright’s “Camp David” (March 21 to May 4, 2014) — built on events surrounding the 1978 signing of the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt — materialized as a proposal for a play by then-President Jimmy Carter’s aide Gerald Rafshoon, a longtime Washington theatergoer. It was submitted to Smith by Rocco Landesman, who chaired the National Endowment for the Arts during President Obama’s first term, and who has given talks at Arena.
“Rocco called me and said, ‘Would you be interested in a project around President Carter and Camp David?’ ” Smith recalled. “And I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ One of our focuses is the American President’s Project.’ ”
The program’s first commission is next month’s world premiere in Arena’s Kogod Cradle of Tazewell Thompson’s“Mary T. and Lizzy K,” about the friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, the freed slave Elizabeth Keckly. Wright, whose solo show “My Trip to al-Qaeda” played to admiring reviews six years ago at the Kennedy Center, was recruited to write it, with Smith directing.
Actors with leadership bearing should get out their glossies and their résumés: “Camp David’s” four characters are Carter and first lady Rosalynn; Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.