Friday, February 2, 2018

Taproot’s ‘Camping with Henry and Tom’ is an Enlightening Experience

Camping with Henry and Tom at Taproot Theatre
David Pichette as Henry Ford, Rob Burgess as Thomas Edison and Frank Lawler as
 Warren G. Harding in Camping with Henry and Tom. (Photo by Robert Wade.)


Taproot Theatre has opened its 2018 season with Mark St. Germain’s clever Camping with Henry and Tom. Like last year’s production of Relativity, also by Germain, Camping with Henry and Tom is a “what if” story based on a real event with real flawed people, but their conversations have been reimagined. Here, the story is about auto manufacture Henry Ford, inventor Thomas Edison and President Warren G. Harding who find themselves lost in the woods while on a camping trip in Licking Creek, Maryland.

Directed by Taproot founder Scott Nolte, Camping features one the theatre’s best stage sets created by Mark Lund complete with Ford’s Model-T smashed into a tree. The brilliant cast includes David Pichette as Ford, Rob Burgess as Edison, Frank Lawler as Harding and Kevin Pitman as Colonel Edmund Starling. Ford and Harding do most of the talking in the production and perform a verbal seesaw taking subtle (and later, not-so-subtle) jabs at each other. Ford seems to know just how to get under the president’s skin and Harding reacts as if on cue to Ford’s delight. As the two debate about the issues of the day, they both badger Edison to side with them, but he doesn’t bite. He is having none of it and often calls each other’s bluff. It is at these moments when the play is its best. However, unlike Relativity, Camping feels uneven.

Camping with Henry and Tom at Taproot Theatre
Rob Burgess and David Pichette. (Photo by Robert Wade)
While overall the dialog is witty and pretty believable, but at times it feels as if the author wasn’t sure what he was trying to say with the play. At one point of the play, Edison’s character shares some boyhood memories that are truly disturbing, and it is meant to be so, but how this short scene relates to the rest of the play is unclear. The play also suffers from the use of two somewhat unsavory characters which I assume is a fairly accurate portrayal of the actual people. No doubt Ford was brilliant, but he was also stubborn, hard-headed, convinced pretty heavily that he is always right and had some far out views about the afterlife. President Harding isn’t much better. At first he seems to be a fairly level-headed man, but the more he speaks (and the more his skeletons come out of their hiding places) the less appealing this man of leadership appears. It’s hard to watch such a play when you don’t really have anyone to root for.

Camping with Henry and Tom isn’t a bad play, and all the actors involved do a bang up job, but compared to Germain’s other plays, including the amazing Best of Enemies (also based on real events and presented at Taproot), this play lacks heart and hope. With that said, despite the fact that this play takes place in the 1920’s, some of the discussions feel quite contemporary and any history buff who enjoys learning more about such characters or can't get enough of political drama, will no doubt enjoy this production.

Camping with Henry and Tom continues through March 3, 2018 at Taproot’s Jewell Mainstage theatre. Due to some strong language and adult themes, the play is recommended for those age 14 and up. Tickets range from $27-$50 depending on the performance and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at (206) 781-9708. The theatre is located at 204 N. 85th St. in Seattle, WA 98103.