PITTSFIELD — An industrialist, an inventor and a U.S. President are driving in the Maryland woods, a refuge from their public, pressured lives. Before they know it, their car is wrapped around a tree.
The scene plays out at Barrington Stage Company under the direction of Christopher Innvar, in playwright Mark St. Germain's "Camping With Henry and Tom," opening Sunday after previews Friday and Saturday and running through Oct. 23.
BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd first staged "Camoing With Henry and Tom" at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in 1993, shortly before she began her own company. The production went on to win awards for its 1995 Off-Broadway premiere, which coincidentally was stage managed by its present production stage manager, Renee Lutz.
St. Germain reimagines a real 1921 encounter with a trio of principal characters who offer a larger-than-life palette of possibilities.
Patrick Husted, last seen in BSC's "An Enemy of the People," plays Henry Ford, the man who motorized the masses and doubled workers' wages, only to betray his legacy through anti-Semitism and a driving need for control.
"He was a very contradictory and conflicted man, very complex," said Husted, as the three lead actors and Innvar took a break from rehearsals at BSC's new Wolfson Theater Center in downtown Pittsfield. "My primary job is to make him exceedingly likable, with as much heart and empathy as I can find." Focusing on Ford's villainy risks making him one-dimensional, he noted.
Ford was a great admirer of inventor and mentor Thomas Edison, widely known as the "Wizard of Menlo Park." Edison is played by P.J. Benjamin, a former "Wizard of Oz" from Broadway's "Wicked," making his BSC debut.
"In the 1880s it was called the Art of Invention," said Benjamin, who bears a striking resemblance to contemporary images of his charge. "Edison wanted to make inventing profitable. He was the first to have a factory where he invented not only the light bulb but also the circuits, generators and fuses, to show that this is going to work. And then he wrestled his whole life with people stealing his patents." He held more than 1,000.
While Edison was lauded for his life-enhancing creations, Benjamin has uncovered a darker side of the inventor's personality. He cited how, as an advocate of DC direct current electrical supply, Edison decried Westinghouse's use of AC.
"You're talking about a man who electrocuted an elephant to prove that alternate current was dangerous," Benjamin said. "He would go to those extremes."
Completing the trio is Kevin O'Rourke as President Warren G. Harding, whose popular but short-lived two-year tenure spawned a legacy of scandal, including Teapot Dome.
"He's got a bad rap over the years," O'Rourke said, pointing out that Harding actually got a lot of things done, creating the budget office and working across the aisle. "He was a very genial and gregarious man, and was the beginning of the charismatic presidency."
While O'Rourke is well-known in Williamstown, this is the first time his schedule has allowed him to perform at BSC. The role is particularly apt, he noted: "I've always been fascinated by politics, and for some reason I've been doing a lot of political plays."
"One of the things that's great, especially for actors of a certain age, is that you get to play a part that has a real arc to it," O'Rourke said. "All of these characters go on a real journey."
Barrington Stage associate artist Innvar readily moves on- and off-stage as an actor and director. He made his BSC directing debut a decade ago with two one-act plays by St. Germain.
"I love directing, the process of telling a story and putting a play together," he said. "Because I'm an actor, I know what that experience is like."
While the characters may be iconic, he noted, "what's important is that we create them anew. Each of these actors brings so much humanity to these parts. It's great to have the history as a reference, but the important thing is the text and the experience in the room in this moment with these people."
What: "Camping With Henry and Tom" by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Christopher Innvar
Where: Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union St., Pittsfield
When: Through Oct. 23 (press opening Sunday afternoon at 3). Evenings — Wednesday and Thursday at 7; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Saturday at 2; Sunday at 3
How: (413) 236-8888; barringtonstageco.org; in person at Boyd-Quinson Mainstage box office