TR Robertson …Mark St. Germain’s “Camping With Henry & Tom” pulls no punches in his depiction of three iconic figures from the past, two inventor’s people have most likely heard of and one figure most people know little about. St. Germain has taken an historical event, a “camping” trip in 1921, featuring the attendance of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and President Warren G. Harding in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Licking Creek, Maryland, woods, and added a “what if” story to the tale. In actuality, Harvey S. Firestone was actually on the camping trip as well, but St. Germain chose to leave him back in the camp on this adventure. What results is a rousing, enthusiastic story, filled with moments of quiet and moments of extreme tenseness, as St. Germain imagines what would take place if these three men were “trapped” alone for a period of time, able to say whatever they wanted to one another with no press or any others around them.
The opening play for the 2018 season at Lamb’s Players in Coronado features a return to the stage of a St. Germain play as in 2015 Lamb’s produced his “Freud’s Last Session, with a successful run. “Camping With Henry & Tom” is in its San Diego premiere. St. Germain is a successful dramatist, script writer for television and film and has produced numerous Off-Broadway plays. He has said he enjoys bringing historical fiction to stage. For the Lamb’s performance, director Deborah Gilmore Smyth was selected to bring the story of these three men to stage. Smyth is a seven-time San Diego Critics’ Circle Craig Noel Award recipient and a member of Lamb’s resident ensemble since 1979 and she has performed in over 160 productions and directed over 70 productions. She has masterfully brought out the best in three veteran actors as the audience is drawn into the play to the point that you feel you are indeed watching Ford, Edison and Harding deal with the situation they have fallen into.
Photos provided by Lamb’s Players Theatre
The premise of the play is that Ford has decided to speed away, in his Model T, from Harding’s entourage and take the President and Ford’s friend, Edison, to a location in the Maryland woods to confront the President on a number of issues. His plans go array as he hits a deer and the Model T hits rocks and a tree. The three men are alone in the woods, with no way to contact others for help. While here they will both enjoy banter with one another, become involved in a series to serious discussions and arguments and find out some deep, inner most secrets about one another. Political agendas will surface, moral issues will arise, ambitions will be discussed, blackmail will occur and the true nature of each of these men’s lives will be brought out.
St. Germain presents Edison as a curmudgeon, with a quick wit, and a sarcastic and biting humor and a cynical outlook on life. He seems to be disillusioned by humanity, regardless of the amazing inventions he has come up with for mankind, such as the incandescent light, the phonograph and the beginnings of the motion picture projector. He doesn’t want to take political sides and says, “Think of me as Switzerland, cold and neutral”. Ford tells the story of his attempts to get Edison to develop a machine that can “contact the dead”. Edison will become more aggressive in Act II, when he hears of Ford’s ambitions and Edison’s concern about Ford becoming President. Edison uses Ford’s tactics of blackmail to force Ford to change his mind. Edison describes himself and Ford as “toymakers” for the public.
Ford comes across as an optimist with an agenda. He is ambitious, driven, a know-it-all, and a tell-it-like-it-is regardless of who it is directed to. He is definitely politically ambitious and puts Harding on the spot as he tries to manipulate him into selling him the Muscle Shoals hydroelectric plant for far less than what the plant is worth. Ford even resorts to blackmail against Harding, threatening to go to Ford’s newspapers with the story of Harding’s fathering a child out of wedlock with a very young woman and Harding may have “black blood” in his families past history. We hear about some unusual Ford characteristics most people are unaware of as well, such as his love of carrots, he only wants black Ford cars turned out at his factory, his extreme anti-Semitism, his desire to be President of the United States and his love of dancing. At one point we see Ford and Harding dancing to the latest rage, the Newport, as they dance to Edison’s cylinder phonograph playing “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. We also find out from Edison that Ford has had several affairs. Ford also believes he has lived before, specifically as a Civil War participant, stating this is why he hates war. Harding tells the tale of going to a fortune teller who told him he only has 2 years left to live. Strangely enough, this will come true. Harding and Ford will go toe to toe, almost to the point of fisticuffs over many of the issues they discuss.
Harding comes across as a man who states he has little political ambition, is not in love with his wife, and wants to get as far away from politics as he can. He tells Edison and Ford about his time spent in a sanitarium, 5 different times, and how he never wanted to be the President, but people pushed him into it as he looked like a President. He also confronts Ford, when he is threatened by Ford, and dares him to try and oust him as President. In Act II, we see a huge change in Harding, almost to the point of a mental breakdown. Harding throws caution to the wind, doesn’t care about what Ford is planning, howl’s at the moon to the point of driving the other men crazy. Harding’s involvement with the numerous scandals that occurred during his term are glossed over. Harding yells at Ford, he doesn’t want to discuss them. The largest of the scandals is the famous Teapot Dome oil field scandals. If Harding’s tale of a fortune teller telling him he would die in two years is true, he did indeed die in 1923 from an embolism while he was on a speaking tour in the U.S. trying to restore the public’s confidence in his administration.
The camping adventure of the three men is somewhat true. There were actually many people on the camping trip and they were never alone. But, what if they were? What would they have discussed and what would they have been driven to tell one another? The possibilities are endless and this is what makes St. Germain’s play so much fun to see, the possibilities of what could have happened.
The key to the presentation is the actors portraying these individuals and Lamb’s has three veteran, talented actors who draw the audience into the world of historical fiction. Playing Harding is first time Lamb’s Players performer award winning Manny Fernandes. Fernandes recently performed at Cygnet presenting a successful presentation of Henry VIII in “The Last Wife”. His Harding ranges from a stoic political gentleman to a man who is completely “losing it”. Playing Ford, with enthusiasm and tremendous energy, is Francis Gercke. Gercke is the artistic director of Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company and performed in the last St. Germain play at Lamb’s, “Freud’s Last Session”. He is also an award winning actor and director and a resident artist with Cygnet Theatre. Playing the cynical, yet highly entertaining Thomas Edison is Lamb’s Producing Artistic Director Robert Smyth. Smyth has directed more than 150 productions for Lamb’s and performed in more than 100. His portrayal of Edison is an audience favorite as the audience waits with anticipation for the next quip or sly comment Edison has to say about the situation the three are in. Also appearing toward the end of the play as Harding’s protective security, Col. Edmund Starling, is Jordan Miller.
These three central gentleman are a perfect match for one another and provide a fun and entertaining look into what might have gone down if this situation actually occurred. You leave the theatre having enjoyed this “what if” look at history. Assisting Director Deborah Smyth was Set Designer Mike Buckley, Costume Designer Jemima Dutra, Light Designer Nathan Peirson, Sound Designer Patrick Duffy, Property Master Rachael Hengst and Stage Manager Cynthia Gerber. The Model T provided for the set was donated for use by Gail Garrison and Jim Burns, assisted by Jeff Tyler.
Harding says toward the end of the play, “A leader needs to know where he’s going and needs to know there are people behind him when he gets there”. There are plenty of people behind this play and it is truly a fun look at what night have been. The play will run through March 25th at the Lamb’s Players Theatre at 1142 Orange Avenue in Coronado. Tickets range from $24-$48 and can be purchased by calling 619-437-6000 or go to www.lambsplayers.org. The play does carry at PG-13 rating for the colorful language of, specifically, Henry Ford. Next up for Lamb’s Players Theatre is the hilarious “Noises Off” beginning April 6th.