Recently, Taproot Theatre has placed a number of historical big shots on its stage: Albert Einstein was featured in Relativity and Abe Lincoln, Grant and Lee in A Civil War Christmas. The troupe has outdone itself with its latest production, Camping with Henry and Tom. Playwright Mark St. Germain bases his “what if?” premise on an actual event: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and President Harding really did go on a much publicized camping trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1921. In actuality, press and family surrounded them throughout the event. Germain imagines the trio off on their own and suffering a car crash with a deer in the middle of the forest. What if these three famous Americans were stranded with each other for a patch of time? The outcome here provides for a wonderfully entertaining evening of dramatic, insightful and often hilarious conversations presented by three skilled actors at the top of their game.
David Pichette does stellar work portraying the iconic Henry Ford. In 1992 Germain decided to write this play as a reaction to the businessman Ross Perot’s candidacy for president. Here, Ford hopes to harness all the skills and energy he used in his career to aid him in becoming the successor to President Harding. He expresses the desire to “Knock some of the rust out of the government.” One of Pichette’s favorite roles was playing Willy Loman in Arts West’s Death of a Salesman. Similarities between that modern tragic hero and Henry Ford abound. Both have a somewhat misguided understanding of the American Dream and are convinced they are on the threshold of solving the mysteries of what it means to live a truly successful life in our country. Pichette imbues Ford with a bristling, manic energy throughout, often attacking Harding and even his admired friend Edison. In act two, Germain exposes the troubling flaws that tether this remarkable man to the ground.
Rob Burgess (Seattle Rep’s Sherlock Holmes) does a splendid job bringing the curmudgeonly Thomas Edison alive. In his later years, Edison was greatly disillusioned with the promises of our society. Burgess skillfully delivers a basketful of hilarious, acerbic observations on the trio’s plight in the forest. At one point he simply asserts, “I hate everybody.” Watching Edison later become the concerned conscience of the group is one of the more riveting arcs of the production.
Taproot veteran Frank Lawler takes on the role of Warren G. Harding. Perhaps less flashy than his cast mates, Lawler’s work is nonetheless remarkably effective. Harding is portrayed as an ineffectual, flawed and greatly reluctant president pushed into roles he never wanted. He enjoyed meeting and befriending citizens much more than leading them as a president. Despite the famous scandals that embroiled him, Germain’s script finds a warm and surprising humanity in Harding. Lawler skillfully develops his character until we have a very complete picture of a troubled but basically decent man.
Mark Lund is the scenic and sound designer responsible for the gorgeous woods setting, complete with a stranded Model T Ford. Costume designer Melanie Burgess has the three men (later joined by a Secret Service man played by Kevin Pitman) looking as if they indeed stepped right out of 1921.
Director Scott Nolte points out in his program notes that these three historic figures were “contending the future of the United States of America” as our country faced many crossroads rebuilding itself after World War One. It is perhaps because our country seems to again be facing a myriad of tumultuous dilemmas that Camping with Henry and Tom proves to be such a riveting experience. For whatever reason, Taproot is offering a unique trip well worth taking!
Camping with Henry and Tom runs through March 3. Wed/Thur, 7:30 p.m., Fri/Sat 8:00 p.m. and Saturday matinees at 2:00 p.m. For more ticket information call 206-781-9707 or go to taproottheatre.org. The Taproot Theatre Company is at 204 N 85th Street in the heart of Greenwood.