Thursday, February 19, 2009

Strong performances abound in Invisible Theatre's latest production

Strong performances abound in Invisible Theatre's latest production

Strong performances abound in Invisible Theatre's latest production

CHUCK GRAHAM

Published: 02.19.2009

Extremely intelligent men do not have to be extremely intelligent all the time - just now and then. When it really counts.

The rest of the time - say, 90 percent of the time - they can be just as boneheaded and shortsighted as the rest of us.

Brian Wees (from left), Roger Owen and James Blair are in the Invisible Theatre's production of "Camping with Henry and Tom."
Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Invisible Theatre


That is the message in "Camping With Henry and Tom," when playwright Mark St. Germain projects an imaginary night-in-the-woods conversation on July 24, 1921, among Henry Ford, Thomas Alva Edison and Warren G. Harding (early in his term as president of the United States).
According to online accounts, it is historical fact that Ford and Edison regularly went on camping trips together between 1910 and 1920. However, it is not established why Harding was invited along on this particular excursion.

It is entirely fictional the three men were able to elude the press for an isolated evening to go mano-a-mano-a-mano promoting their favorite ideas, both political and personal. In the play, they are driving a government car through some dense woods near Licking Creek, Md., when a deer runs across the road. The car hits the deer, then crashes into a thicket.

It becomes a big plot point that the deer seems fatally injured, but none of the men has the courage to take a gun and put the antlered animal out of its misery (as people used to say). This kind of finicky attitude seems out-of-character for such high-ranking figures just a couple of years after America broke the military logjam of World War I.

Strong performances by the actors as world-class leaders free us to wonder about the "documented personal philosophies" mentioned in the playbill and portrayed onstage. Ford believes he is entitled to be elected president, feeling convinced human beings are like machines and as such can be controlled like machines. Edison is a grumpy genius unable to enjoy his success because he is convinced "they" are cheating him out of millions in royalty and licensing fees. Harding confesses "I've never had much of a killer instinct" and goes about proving it.

To think our nation was in thrall to such figures as these is a bit unsettling. Maybe that is the playwright's point. Forces were converging that led to the Great Depression - which set the stage for World War II, that gave birth to all the baby boomers as well as the military-industrial complex, followed inevitably by social upheaval and a conservative clamp-down on individual freedoms.

Because the play's direction is so crystal clear and the production so well cast, "Camping With Henry and Tom" reminds us how human nature hasn't changed very much over the past 85 years. If these three guys represent the brightest of the brightest back then, everyone else better start paying closer attention to the people in charge today.

James Blair is brilliant as Henry Ford. His role is the central one, showing how achievement in business doesn't qualify him to run the country. He is also anti-Semitic and lacking in a national vision. Blair takes the right line on becoming an international figure so myopic he can't understand why he doesn't get a groundswell of presidential support. Even more convincing, Blair gets the little details down in acting like a man used to wielding great personal power.

Comedy relief comes from Edison, played with slumped shoulders and a jowly look by Roberto Guajardo. It is entirely believable that if Edison was a curmudgeon, he would be a brilliant one.

The key role of balancing this pair of high-intensity egos goes to Roger Owen as Harding, tall and stately but squishy as an overripe banana. When he complains about never wanting to be elected president, we believe that, too.


IF YOU GO
What: Invisible Theatre presents "Camping with Henry and Tom" by Mark St. Germain
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 28
Where: Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave.
Price: $22-$25
Info: 882-9721, http://www.invisibletheatre.com/
Grade: B+