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Camping With Henry and Tom

Illinois Theatre Center

By Carol Burbank

There's something innately theatrical about men and camping. Maybe it's the macho intimacy brought about by nature. Maybe it's just easier to believe men will talk with one another in the great outdoors, where no one else is likely to hear them. Whatever the reason, it's the place where playwrights let boys be vulnerable.

Mark St. Germain's docu-fantasy Camping With Henry and Tom is set in that natural netherworld. And in the capable hands of Chicago actor-director Gary Houston, it's an entertaining revision of American history that explores the nature of power with satisfying finesse. Houston uses his excellent cast to full advantage, allowing the tension of hidden agendas, misunderstandings, and dangerous confidences to build into a realistic struggle for control.

St. Germain's drama strands three famous men in the woods: inventor Thomas Edison, industrialist Henry Ford, and the 29th president, Warren Harding. In 1921 the three men were actually in the woods together for a press outing masquerading as a camping trip. St. Germain imagines them escaping the main camp and, after hitting a deer in Ford's Ford, waiting together to be rescued.

The compelling and complicated relationships among the three men testify to the performers' skill and the play's intelligence. St. Germain seamlessly weaves actual quotes from the inventor, the businessman, and the politician into their conversation, offering us a glimpse of the private lives and histories of these very public personalities. Because they are powerful men, their philosophies are swaggering and a bit pat, at least at first. But as the play digs more deeply into their agendas and counterplans, each man reveals the more awkward sides of his ideology. Their darker beliefs and their vulnerabilities become the currency of a surprising negotiation of the future of the country.

Wisely, St. Germain makes these negotiations only the subtext of their interactions, which include dealing with the wounded deer and their own poorly equipped campground. Yet each scene explores a different aspect of the escalating power struggle. Ford, hungry for economic and political advancement, often seems to control the situation. But Gary Rayppy gives the man an adolescent crudeness, his voice rising and falling like a developing boy's. This is a man corrupted by success through machines, unskilled in basic human communication, a touching failure. With his impulsive physicality and aggressive tone, Rayppy's Ford is dominant and crippled by turns as he tries to manipulate his way into a future presidency, using blackmail, anti-Semitic propaganda, and sheer bluster. And yet, like Ross Perot, his dreams of an America run on corporate principles sometimes, briefly, sound like common sense--that is, until he digresses into spiritualism or "Jewboy" insults.

His primary opponent--and scapegoat--is Harding, played with a cagey boy-next-door quality by Glen Allen Pruett. Harding, who at first appears to be the least interesting character, is arguably St. Germain's most skillful creation. As the play's negotiations and revelations continue, he changes from a bored, sullenly conforming handshaker into a firmly moral, free-spirited, and likable man. Pruett gives the part just the right amount of halfhearted posturing and frustrated honesty, at times clenching his hands in a stymied twitch or breaking out into clumsy, liberating howls of laughter that shake his entire body. Without reducing the play to a polemic, Harding's transformation skillfully comments on the constraints and hypocrisies of public office.

For many reasons, my favorite character is Edison. Richard Henzel's performance is nuanced and intelligent, showing the inventor at 72, a fragile man of steel who ultimately names and controls the play's historic decision. Like my grandfather, Henzel's Edison is an observer, a man who tells his stories sparingly and guards his loyalties against manipulation and exploitation. He is a mediator, able to shape other men, despite his physical frailties, with a curmudgeonly intelligence. Edison often surprises with his sarcasm or gentleness--he cannot be predicted.

He also provides much of the comic relief, commenting wryly on the rhetorical sparring of the other men and dropping one-liners about his life and inventions with the bitter wit of a man resigned to disappointment. Henzel's best moment offers a glimpse into Edison's emotions: when he suddenly recalls a friend's name from his childhood, we feel the grief and shock and wonder of the remembrance in his thick voice, stunned expression, and broken posture. Such a performance is the gift of an actor who spares all grandstanding, building credibility and strength to fuel a challenging moment of visible, private epiphany.

Creating a tense triangle among three men whose power comes from different moral, intellectual, and economic sources, the play builds to a surprise ending: power as we've known it is overturned, and everything changes in ways that will be invisible to history. The three men, all of them defeated and triumphant, are interrupted (in fact rescued) by a brusque Secret Service agent, ably played as a paternalistic military man by Matt Janes. Janes's physical beauty and cold demeanor make him seem a poster child for conformity. He returns us all to the restricted world of the official campsite, where honest confrontation and philosophizing are impossible and elder statesmen are treated like children, put through paces unworthy of them.

But by this time we know too many secrets to ignore the irony of the public sphere. And that knowledge, almost inarticulate, is the magic and satisfaction of Houston's production. Nothing gets in its way: Jonathan Billig's realistic sandy grove provides an unobtrusive but effective backdrop for the play's conversation, and Mary Ellen O'Meara's costumes establish the period and the characters with precise, dandyish style.

Productions like this are rare and rich; although Park Forest's Illinois Theatre Center is something of a trek from Chicago, Camping With Henry and Tom is well worth the trip.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Camping With Henry and Tom photo by JLB.

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