PUBLISHED ON FEBRUARY 19, 2009:
Power stands at the center of Arizona Rep's 'Medea,' Invisible Theatre's 'Camping'
By JAMES REEL
Power--how to wield it, how to abuse it. That's the subject of two plays, written nearly 2 1/2 millennia apart, that opened in Tucson last week. A witch-princess exacts revenge in Medea at the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre, while an American president squares off against an ambitious industrialist in Camping With Henry and Tom at Invisible Theatre.
Roberto Guajardo, Roger Owen and James Blair in "Camping With Henry and Tom.
Warren G. Harding is the president in question in Mark St. Germain's Camping With Henry and Tom. Remember Harding? Probably not, unless you're an American-history enthusiast, and the Teapot Dome scandal rings a bell. Harding was initially, in the early 1920s, a popular president, but his administration was probably the most corrupt in American history, at least until George Dubya Bush came along. To his credit, Harding was never directly implicated in the scandals, and St. Germain depicts him as merely an amiable front man for a political machine; as Roger Owen plays him at IT, he's tender-hearted and intellectually bland. Not the sort of personality you'd expect to be able to stand up to a combative Henry Ford and cynical Thomas Edison out in the Maryland woods.
The play is based very loosely on an actual camping trip involving those three men in the summer of 1921, but the plot is largely St. Germain's invention. Ford spirits Harding and Edison away from their entourage, but strands them all when he hits a deer on a remote forest road. While the men wait to be rescued, Ford has all the more time to reveal what he's after: He wants Harding to facilitate the sale, at a rock-bottom price, of a hydroelectric facility that Ford envisions as a sort of huge private-enterprise version of what a decade later would become the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Ford will stop at nothing to get what he wants, and that includes blackmailing Harding, whose personal life has not exactly been impeccable. Meanwhile, Edison, who has no great love for either man (or, apparently, just about anybody), sits by and insists that his companions "think of me as Switzerland--cold and neutral."
For the most part, the underwritten Edison (amusingly, crustily played by Roberto Guajardo) is there merely to provide wisecracks that lighten the escalating conflict between Ford and Harding. As Ford, James Blair modulates his character's development with skill, beginning with outward affability and only gradually revealing what a nasty specimen he is. Owen elicits great sympathy for Harding, essentially a nonentity who almost offhandedly displays some nobility of character.
Nearly 90 years after the time of the play, we know that Ford would not get what he wanted, and within two years, Harding would be dead of natural causes. The interest here is not waiting to see what happens in the end, but watching what happens along the way, and enjoying how these men interact. Under the neat direction of Betsy Kruse Craig, and enhanced by the evocative but compact set design by Tom Benson and subtle sound by Gail Fitzhugh, Camping With Henry and Tom is an easy hike into the wilderness of men's souls.
Camping With Henry and Tompresented by Invisible Theatre7:30 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m., Sunday, through Feb. 281400 N. First Ave.$22 to $25882-9721invisibletheatre.com