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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.

Harding.

St. Germain’s three-man, all-American drama, which met success

Off-Broadway

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,

offstage

wreck, each man clad in an expensive three-piece suit, complete with

gold watch and fob, we quickly recognize that these summer

"campers"

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

is fiction.

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

semantic

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

passion.

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

ineffectual Harding.

So was Harding a bumptious fool or a craven political

opportunist? Doug Kline’s highly effective and cleverly nuanced

portrayal

of Harding is ultimately sympathetic — an aspect largely

determined

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,

injured deer.

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

buried

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

patents

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

better,"

Edison replies.

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

relationship

with his son, Edsel, the Ford Motor Company remained under sole

control

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

teenage

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

Camping with Henry and Tom, Off-Broadstreet Theater,

5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. Dessert & show,

$18.50 & $20. Fridays through Sundays, to September 12.


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