CHICAGO - When U.S. President Ronald Reagan met Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, Switzerland, in November 1985, it was the start of a thaw in Cold War tensions that had dramatically escalated between the two nuclear-armed superpowers.

“It was a real moment in Cold War history in that no general secretary after the invasion of Afghanistan had sat across the table from the president of the United States,” explains playwright Rogelio Martinez.

U.S. President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary
U.S. President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev at their first Summit in Geneva, Switzerland, Nov. 19, 1985.

The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to a six-year freeze in relations with the United States.  A subsequent increase in military spending on both sides, and a wider gap of understanding between the superpowers, led to increased anxiety — with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the globe.

It’s one of the underlying narratives that drove Martinez to dig deeper into an event he didn’t fully understand at the time, when he was a 15-year-old student.  His research grew into the stage play “Blind Date.”

“Though the play has to do with Reagan and Gorbachev, it’s not. It’s about me, ultimately,” Rogelio explained to VOA.  “It’s about the world I grew up in.  It’s an extremely personal play, but it’s also a historical play.”

Martinez grew up in Cuba under the communist regime of Fidel Castro, and fled with family members to Florida during the 1980 Muriel boatlift.

Playwright Rogelio Martinez
Playwright Rogelio Martinez

What informs the dialogue and themes in “Blind Date” surrounding events during the historic Geneva summit comes partly from his own life experience — first under Soviet influence in Cuba, and later under American democracy, led by “The Great Communicator.”

“I started to write the play, and I realized that Reagan himself was a bit of an enigma,” says Martinez.  “He could pivot, which is a wonderful thing in politicians. He could change. He followed his own course and his own instincts."
 
This was not information Martinez gleaned from an official transcript of the 1985 summit — which he says doesn’t exist — but comes from other sources: lengthy letters Gorbachev and Reagan exchanged before the meeting.

“They didn’t speak in soundbites. They actually found a great responsibility with every single word they put on that page.”

“It had to be thought out more thoughtfully,” says actor William Dick who portrays Gorbachev in the production. “Dialogue is crucial. There was a huge abyss between these two people and these two cultures that could have led to a nuclear disaster. But they had the courage to reach out in the dark blindly to each other to make an overture. They were both skeptical. They both thought it wouldn’t work. And it was difficult, but they began to talk.”

Rob Riley (Ronald Reagan) and William Dick (Mikha
Rob Riley (Ronald Reagan) and William Dick (Mikhail Gorbachev) in Blind Date by Rogelio Martinez, directed by Robert Falls at Goodman Theatre

Actor Rob Riley plays Reagan opposite Dick’s Gorbachev, and says what unfolds onstage in “Blind Date” isn’t just a serious examination — it’s also infused with some humor — but it’s a history lesson that has some relevance today.

“Any play about international politics and leadership is going to have resonance with the present,” he told VOA, something playwright Martinez hopes audiences can learn from.

“There is incredible optimism in the play, something that is lacking in today’s times,” he says, “which says problems can be solved. They have to be solved in a way that forces people to rethink their beliefs, and to re-examine why they believe the things they believe.”

“I think the overarching theme applies to today,” says Dick. “It’s about dialogue. It’s about talking. As Reagan says in the play, not talking at each other or about each other but talking to each other is the crucial thing. Daring to go on that 'blind date.'”

“Blind Date” appears at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago through Feb. 25. Martinez hopes wider audiences will have the chance to see the production, and believes what makes for good theater might someday make for a good film.