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Small Is Beautiful

Here's a question for you: When does a theater company become "significant"? Is it a question of the number of seats in the auditorium? If so, your average high school produces "significant" theater. Is it a question of the company's annual budget? Or the number of shows produced? In the theater world, does size matter?

I think not. Plenty of truly insignificant theater companies with big budgets and massive facilities make little cultural impact, for all their blessings. Meanwhile, teeny troupes with no resources, some without a theater space at all, dare to dream great dreams. Local examples: Miami's Mad Cat and Juggerknot consistently bang out challenging, well-acted productions on a shoestring. North Miami's venerable M Ensemble Company is not only mounting a complex original musical, Karma, as its next offering but is bringing in Douglas Turner Ward, a walking national treasure, from New York City to direct it. The Plantation-based Mosaic Theatre puts together superior acting ensembles, despite the struggles of an initial season. These theaters pack quite a punch despite their bantamweight sizes.

But perhaps the award for biggest little theater in South Florida should go to Palm Beach Dramaworks, a two-year-old company working out of a thimble-sized theater space on lively, bustling Clematis Street in West Palm Beach. The company's Studio Theatre, tucked away in the Via Jardin courtyard, is minuscule. The facility has fewer than 50 seats and spans roughly 20 feet from the last (fourth) row to the back of the stage. The Dramaworks may be bound in a nutshell, but its standards are quite high indeed if its latest offering, Camping with Henry and Tom by Mark St. Germain, is any indication. This four-character play features complex characterizations, some sophisticated dialogue, and an array of social and political ideas. Add to this some detailed performances, careful direction, and a remarkably intricate production design and the whole thing adds up to a little gem of a production.

The story centers on a historical event in 1921, when Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and then-President Warren G. Harding took off on their own for a quick camping trip in Maryland. Next to nothing is known about what happened, but St. Germain has plenty of conjectures.

The trio heads out secretly, dodging Harding's Secret Service squad in one of Ford's cars. In the rural darkness, Ford hits a deer, a mishap that maims the animal and disables the car, forcing the trio to spend a cold night out in the open. The journey that began as a lark turns ominous when Ford's motives for getting Harding out alone are revealed. It's soon very clear that Ford wants something and will stop at nothing to get it, even if he has to ruin Harding in the process.

The play derives its strength from character development and a steadily rising conflict among the distinctly drawn personalities. Ford is dynamic, aggressive, and cocksure, the most popular man in America at the time. Edison is his match as an American icon, clever and funny, a sardonic observer of the human condition. By comparison, Harding is a failure as a president and as a husband, a flawed, weak man secretly wishing he could quit his job and openly willing to admit his many shortcomings. At first, Ford and Edison appear to be far superior to Harding, but as the story proceeds, the two geniuses both reveal a disturbing lack of self-awareness. Harding's life, conversely, has been hampered by self-knowledge and self-criticism; ultimately, he comes across as the better man for it.

St. Germain has researched his characters well, tossing in a number of anecdotes and biographical data and filling out what isn't known with some plausible conjecture. The result is a well-crafted, engaging play with emotional and intellectual depth. It's more a poetic artifice than a historical account, but the fact and fiction blend works well; St. Germain makes a number of topical points about the nature of power, politics, and success.

The company's artistic director, William Hayes, has staged the production with care and clarity, ably guiding the all-male cast through the emotional thickets. Charles Newman is convincing as world-weary Thomas Edison, and the actor has a decided knack for the role's many comic one-liners, though his delivery seems more Borscht Belt than one might expect from the Ohio-born inventor. Jim McConville's Henry Ford is an edgy, tormented dynamo whose lifelong family conflicts motivate him in ways he does not fully comprehend. McConville manages to get Ford going in opposite directions -- he's refreshingly candid and practical yet horribly prejudiced and thoroughly haunted. Hal Johnstone is also strong as the lumbering, avuncular Harding, a confessed failure who nevertheless possesses the biggest heart of the trio. When Harding speaks about his little daughter and the sorrow he feels from never getting to see her, Johnstone makes a palpable emotional connection with the material that is utterly riveting.

Rounding out the cast is David Zide in solid support as Harding's frustrated Secret Service aide. Scenic and lighting designer Ed Fitzpatrick manages to create a tiny, remarkably detailed forest glen in the small stage space, a bough-draped enclosure laced with leafy shadows. Pam Kent deserves a nod for her appropriate period costumes.

There are flaws here, as with most any production, but few and far between. The story, which is filled with humor and dramatic tension throughout, ends on a rather weak note. And the company makes the regrettable error of not including any reference to the playwright beyond the byline in the program, despite the author's notable credits, including the off-Broadway musical success The Gift of the Magi (book and co-lyrics), among other works. It may seem a minor point to some, but I'd say the playwright deserves a mention, especially when the writing is this good.

Dramaworks is the creation of Hayes and his partners, Nanique Gheridian and Sue Ellen Beryl, all of whom have business backgrounds and an appreciation for strategic planning. "We all wore many hats in our first season -- as directors, actors, everything," Hayes says. "But this year, we realized we had to focus on managing the company and providing a good foundation for growth." Growth is certainly in the company's near future: The theater plans to expand its physical space and its professional talent pool.

So far, the Dramaworks season has served up two rather well-known plays: Camping has received several productions around the state, as has the season opener, Crossing Delancey. But the company's creative goal is to present underproduced, challenging revivals as well as new plays. To that end, the company presents an annual playwrights festival in July. Last year's winner, The Velveteen Undertow by local whiz Michael McKeever, will get its world premiere later this season.

Meanwhile, though, you might head over to West Palm for a little Camping. It's worth the trip.

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Ronald Mangravite

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