Henry Ford believed in reincarnation. He was right to do so, for Mark St. Germain’s highly promising “Camping with Henry & Tom” and John Cunningham’s dominant portrayal of Ford in it offer strong evidence that he has been reborn as Ross Perot. The play’s suggestion of parallels between Ford and Perot and between 1921 and 1993 is just two of its many slyly provocative elements as it presents a monstrously hubristic Ford planning to become the next president of the U.S. Given the portrait of him painted by St. Germain and Cunningham, let’s be profoundly thankful he was never elected.
The idea for the play sprang from the fact that in July 1921, Ford, Thomas Edison and Warren G. Harding did go camping in Maryland. Dialogue and characterizations are based on historical fact and reportage. The fictional element introduced by St. Germain is for Ford to cut the battery wires of Harding’s Secret Service colonel’s car so Ford, Edison and Harding can be alone.
Ford intends to force Harding to make the U.S. government hand over to him for a pittance the Muscle Shoals rapids of the Tennessee River and its adjacent multimillion-dollar nitrate plant by threatening to reveal that Harding has a teenage mistress and an illegitimate child.
Harding turns the tables on Ford by embracing the threat, stating he never wanted to be president or married to his overbearing wife; being rid of both White House and spouse would be pure joy.
Edison, at first behaving with cold Swiss neutrality, finally steps in to threaten Ford with revelations of his mistresses to prevent him from running for the presidency.
At its best the play is almost Shavian in its moral debating and dry wit. But it does have problems. Its comedic and serious elements need to be better balanced and its three central characters, along with their performances, need more shading between black and white. Yet there’s no doubt that this play has something to say and says it in a mostly engrossing thought- and laughter-provoking manner.
Because of its basic situation, woodsy setting (designed with painstaking realism by James Leonard Joy), and the presence of Robert Prosky, “Camping with Henry & Tom” can’t help but bring to mind Lee Blessing’s “A Walk in the Woods”– which is not necessarily a drawback. It has a tremendous opening: A Model T Ford enters, knocking down a small tree. Ford is driving; his passengers are Edison and Harding. Offstage throughout the play is an injured deer, the car’s victim. In turn, the deer has cracked the T’s block and the odd trio are effectively stranded in the woods.
Much comedy and philosophizing follow, the best of both inextricably entwined. Hyperactive and affecting is Cunningham’s dry Perot-like bark; his Ford reveals himself as anti-Semitic, anti-union and fascistic, thoughtlessly despising son Edsel along the way.
Edison is mostly a grousing old curmudgeon who, at74, believes he already has one foot in the grave. Harding, who, along with Ford is still in his 50s (the three central actors are perhaps too similar-looking in age) is clearly way out of his depth as president.
The play is most sympathetic to Harding, suggesting that the one virtue he has that the two geniuses camping with him lack is humanity.
Halfway through its two-week run at the Berkshire Theater Festival, the play and production were still works in progress. Actors were sometimes searching for lines and not always given sufficient direction by helmer Paul Lazarus, and the physical fighting and dancing to music from one of Edison’s cylinder phonographs needed much stronger staging. The playwright himself has work to do, too, fleshing out his characters and balancing the cut and thrust of their verbal battles.
But there’s already much to ponder and enjoy in “Camping with Henry & Tom.” More will certainly be heard of it.