Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Camping with Henry & Tom
Lamb's Players Theatre
Review by David Dixon | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of Uncle Vanya

Francis Gercke, Robert Smyth, and Manny Fernandes
Photo by John Howard
The title of Mark St. Germain's drama, Camping with Henry & Tom should really be Camping with Henry, Tom & Warren. Thomas Alva Edison and Henry Ford are the major protagonists, but the twenty-ninth President of the United States, Warren G. Harding, is just as essential to the story, currently in production at the Lamb's Players Theatre's Coronado venue. Thomas (Producing Artistic Director Robert Smyth) and Henry (Francis Gercke) often went on motor camping trips together and, in 1921, Warren (Manny Fernandes) joined them on their vacation. St. Germain's narrative, loosely inspired by this actual event, is a fictitious account of the trip.

Their plans fall apart early on when their Model T (provided by Gail Garrison and Jim Burns) crashes into a tree after hitting a deer. Although none of them are seriously injured, the trio tries different ways to get rescued and return to civilization. During this experience, they discuss their personal and professional lives.

Lamb's staging feels inevitable, mainly because the Coronado company had earlier produced a hit version of St. Germain's popular historical drama, Freud's Last Session. This San Diego County premiere features several artists involved with that production, including Associate Artistic Director and Director of Patron Services Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Gercke, Robert Smyth, and several crewmembers. Director Gilmour Smyth treats the "small clearing in the woods outside Licking Creek, Maryland" as both a dangerous and beautiful environment. She envisions the travelers' time in nature as a scary period as they are stranded, yet their conversations showcase their humanity. Mike Buckley's detailed set, Patrick Duffy's rich audio, and Nathan Peirson's star-lit lighting match the changes in tone over the course of the evening. In addition, Jemima Dutra's costumes are effective and are similar to clothes used in photographs of the three men.

Smyth and Gercke explore all the interesting aspects of the playwright's portrayals of the famous innovators, and they expose both the positive and negative qualities associated with these iconic figures. Smyth is frequently hilarious, has a quip for just about every situation, and occasionally turns Thomas into the wisest person onstage. Even at his crankiest, Smyth is always likable playing the brilliant inventor. Equally well developed is Gercke's take on Henry Ford. A compelling aspect of Gercke's performance is seeing him both as an ideal American go-getter industrialist and a flawed individual. Audiences who are not aware of Ford's notorious anti-semitism will be shocked by his views. While Thomas and Henry are celebrated to this day, Warren's legacy is infamous and he's considered by many to be one of America's worst Presidents, mainly because of the criminal activities of some of his cabinet members and government officials. However, thanks to Fernandes' multifaceted acting, theatregoers will end up respecting the politician a little bit more than they might expect. The co-star brings such a jovial sense of fun to many situations that it's easy to be highly entertained by Warren's involvement in Camping with Henry & Tom.

St. Germain's dramatic and comedic sequences are mainly well-executed, but a few aspects of his writing are too on the nose. References to Florence Harding early on make it a little too clear that Warren is unhappy in his marriage. Also, a subplot with the wounded deer concludes in a way that's a bit predictable. Outside of those quibbles, St. Germain's dialogue blends fact and fiction quite seamlessly. Like some of the best stories based on truth, he takes liberties with real events and still is able to be respectful to the actual people involved.

Regardless of one's knowledge of these famous historical figures, St. Germain's frank depictions of several very different men is consistently captivating. Lamb's 2018 is off to a strong start with this play and the memorable work by Gilmour Smyth and the leads.

Lamb's Players Theatre's Camping with Henry & Tom, through March 25, 2018, at 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $24.00 and can be purchased online at or by phone at 619-437-6000.

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