‘Camping with Henry & Tom’: Not so happy campers a delight at SPTC

July 15, 2009
Santa Paula News

Three famous men who hold the future of America in their hands while trying to get a handle on a deer that won’t die - as well as on each other - are not so happy campers in Mark St. Germain’s “Camping with Henry and Tom” now onstage at the Santa Paula Theater Center.

By Peggy KellySanta Paula TimesThree famous men who hold the future of America in their hands while trying to get a handle on a deer that won’t die - as well as on each other - are not so happy campers in Mark St. Germain’s “Camping with Henry and Tom” now onstage at the Santa Paula Theater Center.St. Germain’s unique work is a fascinating look at the interplay between main players of the early 20th century, set under unusual circumstances: electrical genius (GE backwards) Thomas Edison; the man who created the auto industry and an industrial revolution, Henry Ford; and President Warren G. Harding, beset with growing scandals until he thoughtfully and mysteriously died during his first doomed term. The three embark on a Maryland camping trip with the future of America an unbilled guest and the nation’s past an unseen source of debate.Set in 1921, the play is a takeoff on real camping trips shared by Edison, Ford and others, but never including Harding, who preferred much younger - and hopefully discreet - female company. Extremely well researched, the play incorporates actual quotes as well as biographical and personal insights of each man. This outdoor adventure is also a generational blending of Ford (then 58) and Harding (55) with the older but is he wiser Edison (74).Ford (high energy played perfectly by Ron Rezac) seems to experience delusions of great power and importance until it is realized that, by golly, he does have great power and importance... and a very ugly of streak of bigotry.The real life innate unpleasantness of Edison is downsized to cantankerousness (David Ralphe’s right on in the role), and he is portrayed more as the victim Edison saw himself rather than the no-good SOB he actually was. (Ask the reviewer about Edison’s treatment of great minds he paid a pittance to work for him, stealing their ideas and - in the case of the even more brilliant Nikola Tesla - going to disgusting lengths to discredit them.)The play is billed as a clash between “two great minds and one great heart,” and the latter must be Harding (Howard Leader, and you did a very fine job, sir), a bumbling but highly likable man historically described as “a majestic Doric false front” (which, come to think of it, nowadays could apply to breast implants) whose seat of power is actually filled by his grasping cronies.Harding’s Reaganesque lack of interest in just about everything that has to do with governance does not result in - like Reagan - a friendly, easygoing nature. Harding is much like a deer caught in the headlights, but fortunately not the grill of the flivver carrying the three men, the event that puts the brakes on their outing.
Between Edison’s legal woes centered on his kinetoscope - the early film camera - and his death grip on the use of same and Ford’s unabashed power grab as he threatens to reveal Harding’s secret mistress and their love child (the former not too many years older than the latter) if his wish for a humungous power plant at a bargain basement price is not met (and of course, Harding’s mandated endorsement of the auto industry maven for President), well, it’s some camping trip.Revelations such as President Harding’s “handshake hour” is the “most pleasant part of the job,” to questions over whether Edison the child accidentally drowned his 6-year-old playmate, to that “Ha!” moment when Ford is revealed to be not only anti-Semantic (who even stoops to taking an Irving Berlin recording off of the cylinder “record” player - and where did the SPTC snag that relic?) but also an adulterer himself well, don’t make this a group you’d expect someone to break the hotdogs and marshmallows out for.A dose of sanity is interjected when Colonel Starling (a solid, determined and ultimately highly respectful Richard Yager), Harding’s security chief who was given the slip, stumbles across this trio of unhappy campers who are more than ready to return to their luxurious base camp - where their families, entourages and employees are awaiting them - to slip into something more comfortable - notably, their public personas.With deft direction by Tom Eubanks - whose actors easily segue between comedy and drama, and solid support of set designer Will Shupe, lighting design by Gary Richardson, and period and character-centric costumes by Barbara Pedziwiatr, this Leslie Nichols production must not be missed.Kudos also to stage manager Joseph Casteneda, as well as tech support from Andrea Robles, Elixeo Flores and Chris Bombara.Steve Grumette’s sound design deserves a big “One never knows, do one?” for his inclusion of period suitable tunes dominated by the upbeat Fats Waller, always a crowd pleaser and guarantee that a good time is in store. Fats is right: it’s summer and you must go “Camping with Henry and Tom,” which in turn will delight and intrigue you.The play runs through August 2 at the Santa Paula Theater Center, located in the historic Ebell clubhouse on the corner of East Main and 7th streets. For ticket information and reservations, call 525-4645.



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