Philip Dawkins’ play, “The Happiest Place on Earth,” really isn’t about Walt Disney. Which is good, as a play (Lucas Hnath’s “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney”) and an opera (Philip Glass’ “The Perfect American”), have already been written, each by a well-known artist. And, each work is pretty critical of the creator of “The Happiest Place on Earth,” as Walt called Anaheim’s Disneyland.
Mr. Dawkins has his moments where he critiques Disney’s work, but his story is about his family and its pursuit of happiness. That pursuit leads the family to visit Disneyland regularly starting in 1963. Written for him to perform as a solo work, Mr. Dawkins has ceded the acting duties to Jacque Wilke in the play’s West Coast premiere, through April 15, at Diversionary Theatre.
It’s a fine choice for a number of reasons, foremost among them that Ms. Wilke is an actress of extraordinary talent, ability, and command. In her hands, the tragedy that drives “The Happiest Place on Earth” doesn’t so much weigh down the work as drive it forward with determination and more than a little joy.
It takes a while to get to Disneyland. Quite a bit of the exposition is set in Albuquerque, where Mr. Dawkins’ grandparents raised a family of four girls, until a tragedy hit and the family’s life was forever changed. The four girls have distinct personalities and life stories, but I have to admit that despite a fine effort by Ms. Wilke to keep them separate, the various names tumbled out and I lost track of who was who.
Not that it really mattered that much. Tears turned to excited smiles as plans were made to visit Disneyland, a trip that became the first of many.
Along the way, Mr. Dawkins interrogates the elements that made Disneyland so appealing to his family, some of which were insightfully drawn (Main Street is not to scale so that the parades that traverse along it look larger than life), and some of which seem out of place to contemporary sensibilities (the Frontierland shooting gallery featured live ammo, albeit pellets).
And, the shooting gallery was repainted after the park closed each night, a tidbit that isn’t in the play. But, it’s in my head, because I was a “cast member” at Disneyland around the time of the family’s first visit. I’m probably not unique among the potential audience for Diversionary’s production to know Disneyland like the back of my hand – and, to know when the play has its facts askew.
But, Ms. Wilke makes the rough parts smooth and brings her own take to Mr. Dawkins’ story. A strength underlying her performance is Jonathan L. Green’s direction. Mr. Green, the literary manager at Chicago’s Goodwin Theatre, helped Mr. Dawkins develop his piece and directed the world premiere production of it. He’s sensitive to both the author’s intentions and Ms. Wilke’s talents to play with, and sometimes against, those intentions.
The production is basic but solid, with scenic design by Kristen E. Flores, lighting design by Curtis Mueller, sound design by Michael Huey, and properties design by Bonnie Durben. At 90 minutes with no intermission it holds interest throughout and leaves audiences happy to have met this family through Jacque Wilke’s eyes and ears (mouse ears, of course).Performs Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm, at Diversionary’s main stage in University Heights. Street parking only, so allow extra time to find a space and make your way to the theatre. This review was based on the opening night performance, Saturday, March 24.