Lamb’s Players Theatre had a big hit last year by featuring Francis Gercke and Robert Smyth in a production of Mark St. Germain’s play, Freud’s Last Session. So, big that they’re staging an earlier St. Germain work, Camping with Henry & Tom with the same two actors, plus local favorite Manny Fernandes. Does lightning strike in the same place twice? Sometimes, but in the case of theatre, it’s less likely to do so when the second play isn’t as good as the first one.
Freud explored an imagined conversation between the father of psychoanalysis and the author, C. S. Lewis, occurring during World War II’s German blitz and in the last days of Freud’s life. Camping has an equally interesting premise: automaker Henry Ford and inventor Thomas Alva Edison regularly went on camping trips together, and on one such trip took along President Warren G. Harding.
Camping with Henry & Tom begins with the three campers lost in the woods, having successfully ditched the Secret Service agent following them and having also lost an encounter with a deer that jumped into the path of Ford’s automobile. The rest of the play focuses on the conversations the three men had while waiting to be found.
The conversation rambles from point to point, and in the process it reveals both historical points of interest as well as Mr. St. Germain’s take on who these three well-known – famous, even – men are.
Edison (Mr. Smyth) is a genius with many inventions to his credit. Despite running a large laboratory operation, however, he has been prone to having his ideas “stolen” and capitalized on by other entrepreneurs. He is particularly resentful toward the U. S. Patent Office for its mishandling of his inventions. He dislikes Harding and can’t bring himself to address him as “Mr. President.”
Ford (Mr. Gercke) is a first-class entrepreneur and a genius of a businessman. He’s also convinced himself that he should be the next President of the United States. His ideas about ethnic and racial minorities may have been consistent with ideas in the time when he lived, but they sound completely unacceptable to today’s ears.
Harding (Mr. Fernandes) was elected President by one of the largest landslides in history, but he seems to know that he really isn’t cut out for the job. He’s quite a savvy politician, though, and his favorite time in office is the weekly period he sets aside to shake hands with all comers. He has some premonition that his health is shaky, and, indeed, he would die in office of a probable heart attack.
(In fact, while in office, Harding implemented a number of conservative policies, such as tax cuts, increases in tariffs, restrictions on immigration, and cuts to the size of the Federal government. He also appointed four Supreme Court justices, which created a conservative majority on the Court. His administrative suffered from multiple scandals, and historians have often ranked him last among U. S. Presidents. Parallels to contemporary times may have been intended by the selection of this play, but most of these matters are not mentioned in the play itself.)
By the time the Secret Service agent (Jordan Miller) arrives on the scene, some of the alliances have shifted. A few of the attitudes have changed. But, the bonhomie that has developed gives way to the realization that most of the key points of the conversation that constituted the plot were introduced and then never resolved.
There’s a lot of humor along the way, and the laughs (well-earned by three very skilled actors) go a long way to increasing enjoyment to the point where the faulty dramaturgy may not be missed.
Director Deborah Gilmour Smyth’s effective production provides the actors with plenty of room to command the stage. Mike Buckley’s scenic design includes a superb “reveal” at the top of the show that gets things off to a fast start. Nathan Peirson’s lighting provides just the right atmosphere for being lost in the woods as night approaches, and Jemima Dutra’s costumes, Rachel Hengst’s properties design, and Patrick Duffy’s sound design are fine as well.
Mr. Smyth and Mr. Gercke transfer their chemistry from Freud to Camping in seamless fashion. Mr. Fernandes is something of a revelation, having come directly from playing British King Henry VIII in Cygnet’s The Last Wife to playing a glad-handing U. S. President here. His is the most nuanced role, and his performance takes full advantage of the opportunities the role allows.
Camping with Henry and Tom should provide enough diversion for audiences while many of the company regulars prepare Noises Off, the much more difficult farce that follows in April.