WEST CHESTERFIELD, N.H.
"Camping With Henry and Tom," Mark St. Germain’s 1995 award-winning comedy now playing at the Actors Theatre Playhouse, finds its inspiration in a historical fact.
In the summer of 1921 Henry Ford and Thomas Edison went on a camping trip. They often did this on an annual basis. However, for some unknown reason this time President Warren G. Harding was invited. He probably up to that time was one of our most popular presidents. After his death in 1923, he became one of the most dishonored, when it became known that his was one of our most corrupt administrations.
There is no record of the men actually taking off on their own for a conversation. Nor is there any record of anything they said to each other. Ford and Edison customarily brought large entourages on these camping trips, and so must have Harding with his contingent of aides, press and Secret Service men with him.
St. Germain’s conceit is a construct that has Ford piling the two men into one of his Model Ts and getting them lost in the woods when he drives into a deer and crashes the car.
The three of them -- Ford, played by Jonny Mack, Edison played by Bill Pearre, and Harding played by Kirk Winchester -- gather around a campfire and spend the better part of two hours, bickering, pontificating and flinging the occasional insult. There is humor in all this banter but more of the occasional chuckle variety.
Ford also has delusions of being elected president. His success drives his ego. He is convinced that what is good for the Ford Motor Company is good for the country. His policies that are so successful in business would be successful in running the United States. We also find out in the course of the evening that he hated Jews, patronized blacks, was terrified of unions and could be ruthless.
Harding is seen as a moral lightweight, who really didn’t want to be president and only agreed to run because of his friends. Surprisingly he displays an essential dignity and nobility and serves him well in his confrontations with Ford.
Meanwhile, Edison, who has apparently no great admiration for either man (or anyone else for that matter) looks on, refusing to take sides until the end. He is content to act as a one-man, modern Greek chorus and delivers sarcastic asides that are intended to be zingy one-liners. More often than not, they aren’t.
Eventually the three men are rescued by a Harding’s body guard, the Secret Service man Col. Starling, played with steely resolve by Fred Lee.
Director Sam Pilo and his cast do their best with this material. We now are in the middle of an election campaign, and one would have hoped that the script had more bite to it, since one candidate promises to bring the United States out of its current financial woes, because of his success as a businessman. But the script is a lightweight comedy at best appropriate for a summer theater evening.
Winchester’s Harding shows us the sympathetic side to the character. He is particularly effective during his one lengthy speech (the best speech in the play) explaining how he was talked into running for the presidency.
Mack’s Ford transitions abruptly from a blowhard to a bully. It isn’t until the end, when we see that he too could be exposed and has failed in his quest to get what he wanted from Harding, that we see any humanity in the man. Sadly, St. Germain has written Edison’s character as a tired old standup comic.
"Camping" runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 29 at 7:30 p.m. Contact the toll-free box office at 877-666-1855 for reservations and directions to the playhouse.
William Menezes writes about theater and dance for the Arts & Entertainment section.