Back-room politics in the Maryland woods at Barrington Stage

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PITTSFIELD — The setting for Mark St. Germain's "Camping With Henry and Tom" — which is being given an ably acted, workmanlike production at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage — is the woods outside Licking Creek in Maryland. It is July 1921, four months into Warren G. Harding's first and what would be partial — he died of an apparent heart attack two years later in San Francisco — term in office.

Harding (played with affecting innocence and childlike bewilderment by Kevin O'Rourke) is here at the invitation of industrialist Henry Ford (Patrick Husted) who, accompanied by his good friend, Thomas Edison (PJ Benjamin), comes to the camping site annually simply to get away.

But for Harding, the Maryland woods are no pastoral sanctuary. The demands of the presidency, and his marriage, are only a phone call away. And, he is watched over by zealous Secret Service agents, led by Colonel Starling (effectively played by Fisher Neal), who eventually comes to the threesome's rescue when, after clandestinely leaving base camp, they are left stranded when their car crashes into a tree, clipping a deer, which lies dying a slow death just offstage, and seriously damaging the car in the process.

It's the perfect opportunity for Ford who, it turns out, hasn't invited Harding along for the ride. Ford seizes the moment to press the reluctant president to persuade Congress to sell Ford the government's Muscle Shoals Hydroelectric Plant in the Tennessee Valley and he's willing to play hardball to get it.

"I want Muscle Shoals and I'm going to get it, with you or without you," Ford snarls, insisting that Harding push the sale past Congress "before they even blink."

"But you remember this, Harding," Ford continues, "if you're not my friend, you're my enemy. So get out of the way so I can do your job for you."

He wants to "make America great," he says in a line that produced some nervous laughter at Sunday's opening. That's not all that Ford wants. He wants the presidency. His lack of political experience is no obstacle.

"Good government's as simple as good business," he says. "If it works, keep with it, and if it don't, it's tomorrow's trash."

A Democrat, Ford demands that Harding, a Republican, get out of the way, not seek a second term in 1924 and, rather than support his vice-president, Calvin Coolidge, throw his support to him.

"The truth is," Ford says, "I'm the most popular man in this country, More popular than you. More popular than anybody.

"And I don't care who they run against me," he crows. "I'll beat anybody except Jesus Christ, and that includes his folks, Mary and Joe."

In laying his raw ambition bare, Ford exposes a bitter, snarling anti-Semitism, along with a dark, unsettling hint of racial bigotry.

St. Germain wrote "Camping With Henry and Tom" in 1993 and while he acknowledges he has done a bit of tweaking, there's more than a chill in the air as Husted's gravel-voiced Ford exposes the dark underbelly of his ambition.

There is a moment in the first act when the three try to ignite a campfire to keep themselves warm and provide a beacon of sorts for their rescuers. For its part, however, "Camping With Henry and Tom" doesn't fully ignite until its second act when the dramatic issues become more focused. O'Rourke is especially moving in a monologue just after the start of the second act that shows him as a naive, trusting man — perhaps too much so, given the scandals in his administration that were uncovered after his death — who. despite his popularity with voters, was in way over his head and knew it. He virtually welcomes Ford's threat to expose Harding's affair with a woman 31 years his younger and the daughter that came from it and the scandal that would most assuredly follow, in all likelihood forcing Harding to resign the presidency.

Husted's Ford is a bit of a one-trick pony — loud, throaty, insistent.

Benjamin's Edison is a gentle, teddy bear of a man who does rise to the occasion when he sees a side to his "social acquaintance," Ford, he's never seen.

St. Germain shows his mastery of the craft of playwriting here as he works combinations of characters through dutifully constructed scenes.

The craftsmanship of politics is neither as tidy nor as well-ordered. In "Camping With Henry and Tom," St. Germain posits faith in the willingness of men to act out of good principle and do the right thing at the right time. From his words to God's ear!

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Camping With Henry and Tom" by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Christopher Innvar

With: Patrick Husted, PJ Benjamin, Kevin O'Rourke, Fisher Neal

Who: Barrington Stage Company

Where: Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield

When: Through Oct. 23. Evenings — Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Saturday at 2; Sunday at 3

Running time: 2 hours (including one intermission)

Tickets: $20-$49

How: (413) 236-8888; barringtonstageco.org; in person at Barrington Stage box office — 30 Union St.


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