A President, an Entrepreneur, And an Inventor Go Camping
STOCKBRIDGE, MASS. — CAMPING WITH HENRY & TOM. Play by Mark St. Germain. At the Berkshire Theatre Festival through Sunday.
What is indisputable is that Warren G. Harding is a man who never wanted to be President. Henry Ford is a man who did, and after many annual expeditions, this was definitely Thomas Edison's last camping trip with Henry Ford.
- Playwright Mark St. Germain, in program notes
THE delightful contrivance for "Camping with Henry & Tom" is a 1921 camping trip by Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and President Warren G. Harding. That the trip occurred is without question. The annual expedition into the wilds was a long-standing tradition between Ford and Edison. On this particular trip, Ford had the temerity to invite along President Harding, who in turn, brought with him a full crew of cooks, servants, and Secret Service agents, as well as a media brigade that insisted on photographing the trio's every move.
St. Germain's play speculates on what may have occurred had the trio managed a brief escape from their press-packed campsite, and he has concocted a fast-paced and engaging dramatic comedy that bristles with caustic wit while managing to impart some of the basic ideological philosophies of these three fascinating men.
Under Paul Lazarus's direction, the world-premiere show opens with a bang. Amid James Leonard Joy's realistic woodland set, the trio careens onstage in one of Ford's latest-model cars. Apparently Ford has just hit a deer (whose offstage suffering acts as both metaphor and catalyst for much of the ensuing action), and the car promptly crashes into a tree, leaving the three stranded and Edison mumbling, "Henry, you must be the first man in history to try to assassinate a president with wildlife."
While the men wait for someone from their campsite to catch up with them, the three build a fire, grapple with hunger, sleep, read, and talk. Their discussions range from politics to the afterlife, and though they never dig too deeply, their talk offers a compelling glimpse into the characters of three of the era's most intriguing figures.
The jowly, poker-faced Robert Prosky is perfectly cast as the irascible Thomas Edison. The actor conveys Edison's dark, sarcastic wit and barbed one-liners with beautifully tempered restraint. The bitterly aging, curmudgeonly inventor, the focus of unwanted adulation by both Ford and Harding, attempts to keep the proceedings earthbound, nonpolitical, and impersonal.
John Cunningham is somewhat strident as the volatile, voluble Henry Ford, who is determined to keep things lively and confrontational. Ford has his own agenda for the trip: It is his ambition to be president. He proclaims with egotistical fervor, "I am the most popular man in America.... I believe we can lick any problem we set our minds to." He sees himself as a visionary with far-reaching ideas on how to harness hydro-electrical energy, and he invited Harding in order to persuade him to induce Congress
to sell a dilapidated power plant.
Ralph Waite, as Harding, plays the straight man. Harding, although well-intentioned, is ineffectual as president; he is stiff and proper, despite occasional gulps of bootleg whiskey from his pocket flask. Waite is nicely reined in, yet capable of believable bursts of fury, indignation, and frustration as a basically simple man thrown into politics over his head.
The crux of the drama is Ford's undisguised ambition to be president and Harding's admitted lack of heart for the job, even welcoming Ford's threats of exposing his illegitimate child. There are some wonderfully affecting and powerful moments, such as Edison's tale of the drowning of a childhood friend, whose name he recalls after more than six decades. Each character, however briefly, experiences transformational moments that make "Camping with Henry & Tom" go beyond anecdotal and enter the realm of pro vocative, memorable theater.