The Actors Theatre Playhouse of Brattleboro is staging a play that mixes history with conjecture and fiction.
It’s Mark St. Germain’s "Camping with Henry and Tom," a comedy about Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and President Warren G. Harding
It’s a fact that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison took a camping trip together every year throughout the nineteen-teens.
It’s also true that in 1921, they invited President Warren G. Harding to join them, and that Harding, who was wildly popular then, did go camping with them.
The trip included a huge retinue of aides, secret service agents, servants, wives and flashbulb popping reporters.
But only in the play do the three luminaries escape their bustling Maryland base camp and head for the real wilderness in Ford’s Model T….
Only to crash into a deer in the middle of nowhere.
Harding, played by Kirk Winchester, is the first to ask if everyone’s all right.
Edison answers, "I’m a damn site better than that deer."
Henry Ford, portrayed by Jonny Mack, curses loudly, while Harding notes with dismay that the deer is injured, but alive and suffering.
"I don’t know why he’s not dead," Ford retorts. "We hit him hard enough to kill my car."
The men realize they are lost. The rest of the play is set around the campfire they manage to get going. The deer, unseen offstage, provides insights into the men’s capacity for caring.
Sam Pilo directs the play. He says all three men are complex characters with unresolved issues that may or may not be linked to their genius and fame.
"That’s what’s so fascinating about them," Pilo says. "They’re not all good and they’re not all bad. They have their quirks and they have their reasons for being who they are."
Edison is the oldest and crankiest of the three. His cynical one-liners are made even funnier by Bill Pearre’s deadpan delivery.
Pearre says a traumatic childhood may have left the great inventor wary of friendship. And the endless lawsuits over his inventions didn’t help.
"The bitterness stems a great deal from all the money and the time he had to spend in courts protecting his patents on his 1,100 inventions," Pearre says.
In the play, Edison’s well-documented deafness is a hoax, fabricated to avoid social interaction.
While Harding is offstage worrying over the dear, Ford pleads with Edison — the one man he truly admires — to treat Harding more sociably.
"You can’t ignore him all weekend!" Ford says. "He’s the president for God’s sake!"
Edison replies, "I didn’t vote for him. I didn’t invite him. And I won’t call him Mr. President."
"All I’m asking is go easy on him," says Ford.
Edison feigns deafness: "Say again?"
" For my sake," Ford pleads. "I’m asking you as a personal favor."
Edison is now suspicious. "What are you after, Henry?" he asks.
It turns out Ford does want something: the hydroelectric rights to a government-owned dam for one thing. For also wants Harding to resign, so that he can become president.
Ford has learned of an illicit love affair in which the president is involved. It’s one of many scandals that will discredit Harding after he dies in office two years later. The auto magnate threatens the president with blackmail if he doesn’t get his way.
Harding responds with the surprising news that he hates being president. The only part of the job he enjoys is his daily ‘handshake hour,’ when he greets ordinary people on the White House lawn.
"Go to the press," Harding says. "They’ll boot me out the door and so will my wife. You’ll be president of the United States and I’ll be the happiest man on earth."
"Now hold on," says Ford.
Edison suggests that the president’s wife should get the boot instead, but Harding shakes his head.
"The woman’s fought for what she’s got and I’m sure she’ll want to hold on to it. Right now she’s the wife of the president of the United States. I’m just an accessory to that fact."
Before the play ends Ford reveals an aspect of himself that assures he’ll never be president, and sparks new insights about leadership — and the price of genius.
Director Sam Pilo says he’s struck by the similarities between Ford’s era and our own. He predicts that theater-goers will leave wanting to learn more about these great men and their times.
Camping with Henry and Tom runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through September 29. Check the VPR website to learn more.