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Camping With Henry and Tom

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OK, this much we know as fact: President Warren G. Harding really did go ÒcampingÓ with Henry Ford and Thomas Edison in July, 1921, at a place since commemorated as Camp Harding County Park, near Hancock, Md.

What we don't know is what they talked about, or what they would have talked about if they could have stolen away for a few private moments from their sprawling, genteel ÒcampsiteÓ replete with families, servants, Secret Service men and press photographers. That possible conversation in that imagined seclusion is the story of Camping With Henry and Tom.

This 1995 lightweight comedy-drama by Mark St. Germain provides audiences with a nice little primer on early 20th century American history -- and summer theaters with a chance to show off their technical as well as acting skills. The Red Barn Players rise very well to the challenge, turning the stage into an admirably realistic section of Maryland forest, where a Model T Ford rests in the ruins of a tree, having struck an offstage but ever-present deer. While awaiting rescue, the stranded president, automaker and inventor strike up a conversation, lighting up a fire and a few tempers. Ford and Edison are old pals, but not necessarily allies in Ford's plans for (and against) Harding É but let's not give away too much of the plot.

Not that the plot is terribly likely. While much of the dialogue is drawn from historical documents, the playwright mixes dates and anachronisms, modernizes speech patterns, softens the characters and, for those keeping score, jettisons the fourth famous member of the real camping party: tire magnate Harvey Firestone.

But this is fiction, not history. Harding is a dim man who is nevertheless aware of his limitations, and pleasantly portrayed by Tom Bickerts. Edison is Mark Twain without the mustache, but with the largest share of humor, nicely captured by Frank Myers. Thom Bennett has some problems as the highly unlikable Ford, a power-mad anti-Semite, though the actor does succeed in keeping the character human.

The play itself could be sharper, given its empty-suit president with the sexual peccadilloes (nothing new about illicit sex in the White House). There's no stinging satire here, just an evening of light charm and chuckles, perfect for a summer evening in the country.

Camping With Henry and Tom continues through July 21. Red Barn Theatre, near Ellwood City, 724-773-7150 or www.redbarnplayers.com

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