Review: CAMPING WITH HENRY AND TOM at the Westport Community Theatre

Cindy Cardozo

  • Connecticut Critic

Westport Community Theatre made an inspired choice in scheduling Camping with Henry and Tom for the beginning of their season. As we head into the final weeks of a hotly contested and politically divisive election cycle, this historical fiction has just enough truth in it to make us pause and contemplate the fateful decision we are about to make on November 8th. Although not quite a case of ‘history repeating itself,’ this story of a fateful camping incident between an aging genius, a reluctant President, and an ambitious industrialist reflects some of the more troubling aspects of our political process and the reasons why some of our politicians can strike a chord with certain groups within our electorate. 

Taking place in 1921, the play opens with an impromptu road trip gone awry when Henry Ford’s Model T hits a deer and veers off the road into a tree. Ford and his passengers, Thomas Edison and President Warren G. Harding, survive the accident, but find themselves stranded in the woods, thanks to Ford’s having sabotaged the car of the President’s Secret Service Agent. What transpires in the few hours while they wait for rescue is the bulk of the play and includes some monumental political maneuvering on the part of Ford, with some political innuendo and blackmail thrown in; complete resignation on the part of Harding who is more than willing to throw his Presidency away for reasons of his own; and wry observations by the world-weary Edison, who is so mired in patent lawsuits that he cannot enjoy the astounding honor of being the man who helped usher in the modern age.  

Under the excellent direction of Ruth Anne Baumgartner, a superb cast brings these illustrious icons to life. Rob Pawlikowski is wonderful as Thomas Edison and acts as the knowledgeable elder statesman and somewhat neutral observer to the political drama unfolding in front of him. His timing is impeccable as he throws out witty, wry, and sometimes biting commentary on everything from getting older to his pending lawsuits and to his friend Ford’s nascent political ambition. 

Sam Mink is excellent as President Warren G. Harding. He not only looks the part, but is able to make him a sympathetic character despite his lofty office. His Harding is friendly and approachable, and I could almost picture him as a man who is led, not by his own ambition, but by the wishes and stern direction of his wife, who he refers to as the Duchess. His complex portrayal of Harding allows him to be sadly resigned to a position that he does not feel ready for, nor truly wants, yet when pushed, is commanding enough to stand up to Ford who ultimately “abuses the Office of the President.”

Also in the cast is Russ D. Martin as Colonel Starling, President Harding’s Secret Service man.  Mr. Martin is convincing as the all-business protector of the President, although it is clear that in some instances, he seems more like Harding’s jailor than guard, making Harding an even more sympathetic character, seemingly buffeted by the chance circumstances and restrictions of his political office.

The focal point of the story rests with Henry Ford who is fascinatingly and convincingly played by Alexander Kulcsar. His Ford is a by the bootstraps, can-do, successful businessman. He is all self-congratulating ego, full of bluster, platitudes and slogans, undeterred from going after what he wants in a way that will only benefit him. In this case, what he wants is to build a Muscle Shoals metropolis in the Tennessee Valley for the very low offer of $5 million, which would be a huge loss for the government. 

When Harding turns down the offer, Ford resorts to threatening the president with innuendo that he had a black heritage, and of going to the press with proof of an adulterous affair that resulted in an out of wedlock child. And that’s not even the ugliest part.  Ford goes on to talk about running for President himself – after all he is a successful businessman; he would run the government the same way. He would reshape America and rewrite the history books to show only American exceptionalism. And his first step would be to get rid of all the Jews. His unabashed, blatant anti-Semitism drew a loud gasp from the audience and is what finally pushes Harding and Edison over the edge to stop the madness before it begins.  

The production staff of the Westport Community Theatre is also to be congratulated for this amazing show. Al Kulcsar is credited with set design, with costumes by Mary Kulcsar, and lighting and sound by Jeff Klein and Dave Eger. All of these work together to turn an intimate black box setting into a clearing in the woods, complete with full moon, real tree stumps, and an honest to goodness life-size Model T. I felt transported. 

This is a highly entertaining play that has piqued my interest in learning more about the real men behind the characters. It is also troubling in the all-too-easy parallels between those men, their ambitions, personal foibles, and lapses in moral character to today’s toxic political arena and serves as a reminder to be vigilant and non-complacent about our upcoming elections. To entertain, educate and inform is what compelling theatre is all about.  Well played.   

Photo: L to R: Rob Pawlikowski, Alexander Kulcsar, Sam Mink, and Russ D. Martin