Aired on KSDS-FM on 3/20/18
RUN DATES: 2/16/18 – 3/25/18
VENUE: Lamb’s Players Theatre
History repeats itself again.
Though “Camping with Henry and Tom” was written in 1993, and is set in 1921, it feels eerily up-to-the-minute.
Playwright Mark St. Germain enjoys tinkering with the past, putting real characters in imagined contexts.
This time, he visits automobile industrialist Henry Ford and inventor Thomas Edison, on their regular summer camping trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 1921, they did, in fact, invite the 29th President, Warren G. Harding, to join them.
Then, St. Germain’s fancy takes flight.
Ford virtually abducts the other two, taking off in his Model T and leaving wives, children, reporters and secret servicemen in the dust. His road-trip has a devious agenda. Ford wants Harding to sell him the abandoned Muscle Shoals, Alabama hydroelectric project for a fraction of what it’s worth.
When the car collides with a deer and runs head-on into a tree, the trio is stranded in the woods outside Licking Creek, Maryland.
And that brings out the character eccentricities.
Edison, the elder at 74, is a crusty, bitter cynic, disengaged from the argument, until he becomes the conscience of the play.
Harding has a spotty mental health history and no interest in the daily details of the Presidency.
Ford urgently wants his job. His frightening plans for domination reveal a mean-spirited bigot, virulent anti-Semite and anti-union white supremacist, who tries to blackmail Harding by exposing his many sexual indiscretions.
Ultimately, Harding didn’t last out his term, and a bevy of his advisors were embroiled in scandal.
It’s chillingly resonant.
The talky melodrama may and not-always-credible characters aren’t blessed with nuance, but the skillful cast takes obvious glee in goosing them to life: Francis Gercke, manic and rampaging as Ford; Manny Fernandes, delighting in the volatile Harding; and Robert Smyth savoring Edison’s jocular, sarcastic asides.
Director Deborah Gilmour Smyth keeps the pace lively, though the play might work better as a one-act.
This production is excellent, though, with a striking set and lovely lighting, as afternoon turns to night, and a former military officer arrives to rein in the chaos.
It all seems uncannily familiar.
©2018 PAT LAUNER, San Diego Theater Reviews