Camping with Henry and Tom, by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Christopher Innvar. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Kevin O'Rourke as Warren G. Harding, Patrick Husted as Henry Ford, PJ Benjamin as Thomas Edison; photo: Scott Barrow
"I'm not sure whether we're over-designed or under equipped,
but I know we're unfixable."
PJ Benjamin; photo: Scott Barrow
How peculiar and how unbelievable that on the eve of the 2016 second Presidential debate Barrington Stage Company chose to open their final play of the season, Mark St. Germain's "Camping with Henry and Tom." This 1993 play, which won the Outer Critics Circle Award when it was first presented off-Broadway in 1996, is about President Warren G. Harding, automobile magnate Henry Ford and inventor Thomas Alva Edison stranded in the woods outside Licking Creek, Maryland one summer evening and what conversations took place among these imposing men. Set in 1921 the play is prescient, pre-echoing the exact words of 2016 nominee Donald Trump. Henry Ford, the schemer in the bunch, is the precursor politically of this peculiar semi-Republican who espouses many of the same idea, ideals and proposals spouted by Ford. We're watching a play about men long dead and suddenly hit with the revelation that nothing changes in this world. Bigotted, mean-spirited men of business have always believed in their God-given right to rule the world they control. Seeing this play again, now, in this season of our political year, is a hysterically funny yet chilling experience.
The diffidence of a genius, Thomas Edison, helps to keep those ancient fires of domination in their place. His off-hand remarks, his refusal to be drawn into the arguments for Edison's natural right, are what keep the play on track and actor PJ Benjamin makes the most of each line the author has given him to toss a semblance of reason and sense into the mixture. He is never completely engaged except when dialogue insists he lay things out reasonably. Most of the time he is the ancient Greek Chorus commenting wryly on the bizarre occurences and utterances of his colleagues. Benjamin is brilliant with this material and he probably holds the record for the most laughs in the show. Even so, his work is so elegantly realistic that he is applauded for his consistency and his vocal pressures on both Ford - who wants to dominate - and Harding - who wants to vegetate.
Kevin O'Rourke is the sweeter side of the political coin as President Harding, a man totally uncomfortable with himself who would prefer not to be who he is or in the situation that defines him. Harding's poignant reminiscences about his life and his inability to adapt to marriage and career, his reluctance to disobey his calling and his desire for a simpler life with his child and mistress are wonderfully rendered by O'Rourke. He manages to keep the role away from the maudlin side and he presents the far too human Harding as a man who lives the lies he has to hide behind in order to be the President he is. Like Hilary Clinton in the evening's debate, he is firm, and in control most of the time, unshaken by the harsh and brazen attitudes of Henry Ford. O'Rourke plays the stability/instability issues like a man who knows what it is to submit to the machines prescribed by Dr. Kellogg (the cereal man) who has institutionalized Harding more than once. There is a delicious sensitivity in his performance.
He is Presidential when he finally has to take control of things, when his Secret Service man, played neatly and severely by Fisher Neal, takes over the clearing. He is appealing when he can be his humbler self. He is everything we expect from our elected leaders and nothing like what is needed. Watching O'Rourke vacillate from one pole to its opposite is a bit like watching basketball tournaments: your mind ricochets off the trees here on David M. Barber's lovely set as you try to keep up with the overly quixotic changes in O'Rourke's Harding.
Kevin O'Rourke; photo Scott Barrow
Patrick Husted; photo: Scott Barrow
Henry Ford is the man to watch, however, as he trumps every emotional and professional card played by his favorite opponent, Edison, and his new target, Harding. Patrick Husted is a grand choice for the role, almost capturing the nearly cadaverous look that Ford presented but giving us a much more fleshly representation of the automobile king. There is irony in his performance, even when talking about his car which has crashed into a tree avoiding a deer and leaving them stranded in a strange place without recourse. As the play progresses and Ford opens up about his political aspirations, this man actually says many of the things that we've heard Trump shout to the crowds over and over. Ford wants to make America great again. That is his byward. Ford wants to throw the Jews out of America; that is his goal and part of his method to achieve the greatness he calls upon from his country. It is chilling to hear those words, reflecting attitudes in 1921, written in the 1990s and heard daily today.
If this play gives us nothing else it serves to remind us of how little things have changed since the days when Nazism was beginning to grow in Europe and Ford was on a rampage right here where we live. But Husted gives us a dancing Ford, a chipper Ford, an amateur professional who likes to talk the talk and walk the walk and dance the dance till his onlookers are exhausted and too weak to talk, walk or dance back. Husted does a wonderful job playing this aging dynamo with only a few goals left in life. He makes the nasty, manipulative Ford into a man we totally understand and relate to as we kick ourselves in our seats for even going there for a moment.
Brad Bedridge provides wonderful sound effects and provides Edison-style music. Charlotte Palmer-Lane shows us how men looked in 1921 with her perfect costumes and Scott Pinkney's lighting puts us where these men are and takes from afternoon into night with a lovely moonlit aura while a slow fire burns in the pit.
Director Christopher Innvar has wonderfully brought these men to life in St. Germain's play. His staging gives us a bit of this and a batch of that and the emotional content of the play is handed to us in ideal pictures and well-modulated tones of voice. The playwright's understanding of the dynamics of these men plays perfectly on the stage here under Innvar's careful direction.
A late in the season entry, "Camping with Henry and Tom" is the best coordinated play of the season, coming just in time for the upcoming election. Ford/Trump vs. Harding/Clinton and the outcome is in doubt. "The best is yet to come," they say and at Barrington Stage the best arrives daily just to keep us laughing while we think about our own reality.
How many smart men does it take to light a lantern?; photo: Scott Barrow
Camping with Henry and Tom plays at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA through October 23. For information and tickets, call the box-office at 413-236-8888 or go on line to barringtonstageco.org.