Finely Observed Slice of History in CATCO’s Henry Ford’s Model E
Fusing the macro- and micro-rhythms of history to a complicated, relatable emotional reality is one of local playwright Herb Brown’s specialties. The world premiere of his new Henry Ford’s Model E, presented by CATCO and directed by Steven C. Anderson, is a reminder how potent those gifts can be. This writer saw the final preview of the run on Thursday.
Henry Ford’s Model E finds the eponymous magnate (Steven Black) sliding into a space between King Lear and Lion in Winter mode as his son Edsel (Christopher Storer) goes from the apple in his eye to the focal point for his paranoia and insecurity, with long-suffering right-hand “Cast-Iron” Charlie Sorensen (Todd Covert) caught between the two.
The episodic structure of Brown’s play follows Ford (and, by definition, America) from the introduction of the Model T in 1908 to Edsel’s death in 1943. At times these sketches feel understandably fraught with infodumps but Brown’s keen ear for dialogue gets those rough parts over and his trust in the audience to follow as the time between scenes varies counts for a lot.
Ford slowly losing his grip gets a masterful portrayal in Steven Black. As we watch the innovator curdle beneath his hardening shell, losing market share to upstarts GM and Chrysler but rejecting Edsel’s attempts to infuse new innovations his father didn’t think of into the company, Black makes his venality and desperation palpable.
Black’s portrayal of the mercurial nature of a man reasonable in one gesture and off-the-handle-unhinged in the next weaves moments of astounding generosity and kindness and heartless cruelty “just to prove a point” with scalpel precision and the quick pivots of an athlete. A deft hand and symbiosis of actor and playwright plant the seeds for what the audience knows about Hitler admiring Ford’s biography and Ford’s “pacifism” being rooted in isolationism and a loathing for Europeans, particularly Jews. His desperate desire to be loved even while treating people terribly echoes from his workers to his son to his grandsons. It’s a testament to Black’s performance that his Ford can still break our hearts after everything we’ve seen in the preceding two acts.
Storer’s Edsel is a charming, quick-witted look at the danger for parents of teaching children to be their own person. His charm and grace make him believable as someone who would hob-nob with the Rockefeller family but he echoes Black’s Ford with subtle gestures and inflections of speech. He never stops wanting his father’s love and approval but slowly he finds his spine and what he will and won’t do for that love. His first-hand look at the damage his father does to relationships turns into him being hung out to dry when consequences find them. Storer’s the beating heart of the play as we see what it takes for a man to sell out and how one claws their way back.
Covert’s the clear-eyed confidant who comes into his own when the boss decides he doesn’t need to hear the truth. Watching the way Edsel earns his respect and their unified front to try to talk sense into Henry Ford as Ford aligns with thuggish Harry Bennett is what the audience roots for here and his enraged stands against Ford in the face of bloodshed, Government pressure, and Ford’s Nazi sympathies is thrilling, edge-of-your-seat drama.
Anderson’s direction makes the most out of the episodic format and open staging. Shuffling between characters staying on stage and playing with different entrances and levels of being dropped into scenes in media res keeps the audience alert and plays up the dreamlike, ambiguous emotional reality the play lives within. Dan Gray’s remarkable set features a turntable with what looks like a tire/axle attached to a factory conveyor belt beneath a Ford grill with gauges in place of the headlights at the right of the stage. Staging everything in this circular space emphasises the circular, repetitive, unstopping nature of time as character step into the revolving world already in progress. Anderson also uses the circle to highlight a sense of claustrophobia, making that circle feel like a bubble, a bunker, and a cage match.
Henry Ford’s Model E sometimes feels dry or abbreviated, covering 30 years in a tight two hours, but this riveting exploration of legacies and power understands the birth of modernity is littered with bones and knows how easily a deal with the devil can be brokered. It’s a deeply moving work that understands the ambiguous nature of history and the human heart.
Henry Ford’s Model E runs through May 7 with shows at 11:00 a.m. Wednesday, 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit catco.org/shows/2016-2017/henry-fords-model-e.