It was 1921. Henry Ford, Thomas Alva Edison and Warren G. Harding went camping. It was a camping trip like no other at the time because this particular camping trip included a president of the United States. In the past, Ford and Edison had enjoyed the company of Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs. They dubbed themselves the ‘Vagabond’s.
American naturalist Burroughs’s died earlier that year and although Firestone accompanied Ford, Harrison and Edison on their 1921 camping trip, playwright St. Germain chose to leave him out of his narrative “Camping With Henry and Tom", now in a polished, San Diego premiere, imaginative and fun production at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado through March 25th.
|Manny Fernandes, Francis Gercke and Robert Smyth|
Plays based on historic events are usually on slippery grounds. Unlike today’s happenings where someone has some sort of recording machine or electronic equipment or drone device to memorialize such occasions. What we know of this particular trip was that there was a trip, and the three or four ended up in the woods, out maneuvering Harding’s Secret Service Men somewhere outside Licking Creek, Maryland. Some of what happened is based on ‘the political climate of the time.’
In the author’s notes St. Germain suggests that the ‘play is a fiction suggested by the facts.’ In 2015 Lamb’s Players Theatre mounted another of St. Germain’s historical fiction based on facts, “Freud’s Last Session” to critical acclaim.
Both plays conjure up some pretty feisty dialogue centered on some pretty feisty characters. In the first, which premiered in 2009 the conflict was between C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud. It was more philosophical based on life and death issues. It took place in England and the beginning of WWII was looming in the background. Coincidentally Smyth and Gercke played opposite each other in that play as well.
“Camping” that premiered in 1993 seems dangerously close to comparisons of todays behind the scenes and openly hostile shenanigans of corruption and fraud within our government from Ford (Francis Gercke) spouting his anti-sematic rants and Harding’s (Manny Fernandes) secret (that was the best known fact out there) affair that left him open to blackmail, (not counting the Teapot Dome Scandal) to Edison’s (Robert Smyth) lackadaisical interest in politics.
|Manny Fernabdes, Francis Gercke and Robert Smyth in the rear.|
The play opens with a bang as Ford’s Model T touring car (beautifully reconstructed by scenic designer Mike Buckley) clashes with a deer, bounces off a tree and hobbles into an open wooded area. With the car disabled and the three somewhat flummoxed about the condition of the deer not to mention the car, try to figure out what to do next.
The deer conversation becomes a reoccurring theme running through the entire show- to kill or not to kill, to save or not to save, how to kill it, how save it. (H. “We should put him out of his misery. F. With what? I don’t have gun, do you?”). Better yet, Ford offers to feed it with some canned carrots he had stashed in the car.
But there is less subtlety and comic interaction in other conversations having to do Edison’s inventions and an encounter he had with a boyhood friend who died while the two were swimming; he couldn't seem to remember his name. Ford’s son Edsel was another topic that gave credibility, and Harding’s election (He did not want the job.) and how he, everyman, shaking hands with his minions and admirers in the garden every day became the highlight of his presidency.
|(L to R) Manny Fernandes, Robert Smyth and Francis Gercke|
Combative conversations came and went with Edison throwing in his two cents about Patents and inventions. Each having their own say, but the loudest and more sustained conflict ccame between Ford and Harding. Edison was not a fan of Harding and pretty much ignored conversations with him.
Aside from the fact that Ford thought he should be president because he is a business man not a politician, (sound familiar?) he was obsessed with having the government award him the rights to the Muscle Schoals Hydroelectric plant at a bargain rate so that the country could harvest its own energy. (“Have you ever seen the Tennessee River, Harding? Do you have any idea how much energy we could collar down there?”)
Harding accuses Ford of wanting to line his own pockets and refuses to interfere with congressional decisions and Ford threatens the president of outing his indiscretions.
It gets somewhat combative but to Ford’s amazement and chagrin, Harding is nonchalant and tells him to let the chips fall where they might. He’s sure he’ll not live out the full term of his presidency (which he doesn’t) and while he can, he will do the best for his country.
As a footnote, Harding was, at the time, probably the most popular president to be elected. Here’s a question, would his followers care? Sounding a little like déjà vu? Hmmmm
Edison, himself satisfied with a good book and wanting some peace and quite enters into the fray every now and then with Smyth’s Edison getting some of the best of St. Germain’s dialogue and slow zingers.
H: “We’ve got more cars than streets; we can’t build roads fast enough from ocean to ocean. And you sir the man who gave us the light bulb, the phonograph! Mr. Edison when I was a boy, you were no less a hero to me than Caesar or Napoleon.” E: “Dead heroes are always a safer choice.”
The automobile engineer and the inventor went way back in their friendship when Ford helped Edison out with some sketches for his long time dream of making an automobile for the masses. They knew each other well and nothing more or less was expected from the other. The wild card was Harrison and it was fascinating to watch the triangle of friendship between the three tip the scales as it teetered from one to the other.
Deborah Gilmour Smyth directs with a keen eye giving the three able bodied men dressed in Jemima Dutra’s period costumes room to be themselves, according to St. Germaine, and explore his possibilities of what might have been the topics of their conversation.
|Francis Gercke and Manny Fernandes|
We can only imagine, as did St. Germaine, but suffice it to say Fernandes’ Harding was as full throttle a performance as was his portrayal of King Henry VIII in Cygnet’s “The Last wife”. His natural penchant for making everything he does look easy is endearing. His size gives him authority and his manner a gentleness that spells trust.
His turnabout in challenging Ford to ‘out him’ left Gercke’s Ford wide eyed with disbelief. But what turned the tables on Ford that finally opened Edison’s eyes and tipped the scales on his long time friend came when Ford went ballistic on the Jews. He was a certified anti-Semite and made no bones about it.
Gercke’s rants and rampage put him smack dab in the middle of two giants reducing his character to cockroach status about to be squashed. Many in the audience never expected the tirades out of his mouth, I suspect. So convincing was he that yours truly wanted to be that shoe that did the deed. To this day, the only thing I have to say about the man was that he was an anti-Semite.
Smyth’s curmudgeon as Edison was well worth the pleasure of catching him in a part that seemed made for him along side his partner in crime in the C.S. Lewis play mentioned above. His low-keyed and oft cynical comments put him pretty much on an equal par with the other two more loquacious partners.
Jordan Miller, Harding’s Secret Service Agent makes a cameo appearance in the end to rescue the three giants and finally put the deer out of his misery.
Along side Buckley’s scenic design ‘Camping’ can boast Patrick Duffy’s sound design and Nathan Peirson’s lighting design.
It’s always fun to imagine what ifs. Like what if Hillary Clinton won the election. Oh, different play.
Be that as it may, this may not resemble ‘a weekend in the country’ (to borrow a song title from Stephen Sondheim), but yours truly wouldn’t have minded being a fly on a tree to be there.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through March 25th
Organization: Lambs Players Theatre
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 1142 Orange Ave. Coronado, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at $24.00
Photo: John Howard