Corrections or additions?
This review by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
August 19, 1998. All rights reserved.
Review: `Camping with Henry & Tom’
Mark St. Germain’s ingenious play, "Camping with
Henry and Tom," opens with a noisy collision between nature and
machine. The year is 1921 and Henry Ford is behind the wheel of a
Ford automobile that collides with a deer in the woods of western
Maryland. His passengers on this unlikely summer getaway are none
other than the eminent Thomas Alva Edison and President Warren G.
St. Germain’s three-man, all-American drama, which met success
in 1995, is receiving a lively and intelligent production, directed
and designed by Robert Thick, at Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell
through September 12. In two crisp acts, these titans of our cultural
patrimony candidly air the issues, ambitions, and grievances that
continue to fuel our national engines.
As the trio emerges onto the woodsy stage set from the initial,
wreck, each man clad in an expensive three-piece suit, complete with
gold watch and fob, we quickly recognize that these summer
have come to the country with all their social and political baggage
intact. Although the setting is the early ’20s, the play’s dialogue
resonates with the continuing (and healthy) tensions between politics
and commerce, corruption and the public good.
Set during the brief, notorious Harding presidency of 1921 to ’23,
"Camping with Henry and Tom" is a fiction suggested by facts.
That President Harding joined Ford and Edison’s annual camping trip
in 1921 (a longstanding tradition that customarily included industry
captain Harvey Firestone) is fact. That the trio escaped from their
85-member Maryland camping party to engage in this particular dialogue
As the nominal custodian of immense power, Harding is the linchpin
of the action. Harding is remembered primarily for the corruption
of his appointed officials, most notably Harry M. Daugherty, the
father of the "smoke-filled room," who, in 1927, was tried
and acquitted of defrauding the U.S. government. Referred to here
as "Harry and the 40 Thieves," Daugherty groomed Harding for
public office over years, first as senator, then president, finally
gaining his nomination by the Republican party largely on the basis
of his presidential appearance. In her latest novel, "My Heart
Laid Bare," Joyce Carol Oates sketches a portrait of Harding’s
Washington engaged in "thievery so gross and undisciplined it
resembled a shark feed in the ocean; or, indeed, hogs grunting about
a common trough."
Apart from his poker, golf, love trysts, and drinking, nothing pleases
Harding more than addressing crowds and glad-handing the public. His
wife, Florence (the subject of a new biography, "First Lady of
the Jazz Age"), was the first First Lady to open the White House
grounds to visitors, presumably to fulfill her husband’s handshake
When Secret Service man Colonel Edmund Starling, played with brusque
authority by William Heitmann, arrives to "rescue" Harding
from the woods, it’s unclear who is in fact in charge. This gives
rise to Harding’s complaint that these overbearing "Daughtery
boys" protect their jobs by protecting Harding. "It’s like
having a whole army of mothers with guns," whines the seemingly
So was Harding a bumptious fool or a craven political
opportunist? Doug Kline’s highly effective and cleverly nuanced
of Harding is ultimately sympathetic — an aspect largely
by the playwright who writes the character as the only one of the
three men with an almost desperate concern for the dumb, yet sentient,
Casting himself in contrast to Kline’s wishful fantasies, Karl Light
has a field day as the aging and cynical Edison. This "wizard
of Menlo Park" (who died in 1931) would rather keep his nose
in a book than mediate between Harding and Ford’s brash demands. The
play is an effective reminder that while Edison filed over 1,300
for inventions that included the electric light, the phonograph, and
the movie camera, he not only got rich, but effectively gave birth
to the giant utility and entertainment industries. Did we make the
world a better place? asks the ambitious, hyperactive Ford. "We’re
toymakers. We live faster lives, but we didn’t make things
Tom Stevenson plays Henry Ford, "the man who put America on four
wheels," as a bundle of contradictions: pragmatist, spiritualist,
health-food fanatic — or perhaps all-around fanatic. Although
Stevenson comes across as a rather vigorous 56 to Light’s elderly
Edison, given his actions, beliefs, and vision for the future, his
character needs all the vigor he can muster.
Henry Ford lived until 1947, and notwithstanding his strained
with his son, Edsel, the Ford Motor Company remained under sole
of the Ford family until 1956. Although his brash demands on President
Harding hardly surprise us, it is a bitter moment when he reveals
another side of his character, his fundamental racism.
Ford’s apparent aim was to become the nation’s 30th president (Harding
died in office in 1923, and Calvin Coolidge got the job). And his
1920s political rhetoric — "Let’s lower taxes and get the
bloat out of government" — sounds sadly familiar.
Much of the blight of the Harding presidency hinged on Nan, his
mistress, an out-of-wedlock daughter, and the goings on in the White
House clothes closet. "I want the big man at the front desk to
keep his pants on," says Ford, in his rant against Harding’s White
House. As if to seal Harding’s fate, Ford exclaims, "Why, that
man’s not fit to be vice-president!"
— Nicole Plett
5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. Dessert & show,
$18.50 & $20. Fridays through Sundays, to September 12.
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