Ah, the land of dreams, whimsy, and mouse ears! Main Street, USA, the Matterhorn ride, and Tom Sawyer’s Island. All these are part of a mecca for family entertainment nestled in sunny Anaheim, California. I could only be talking about Disneyland, the original imagineered theme park where children can eat breakfast with Cinderella, and grown-ups can be kids again in the spinning tea-cup ride.
Walt Disney’s dream for both an escape from the cares and woes of the day and an almost utopian ideal for what the world could be opened its doors July 17, 1955 and the rest is history. Playwright Philip Dawkins could also say his own family’s history is linked to Disneyland as closely as the image of Tinkerbell waving her wand over Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
In The Happiest Place on Earth, a one-person staged memoir, Dawkins has crafted a two-pronged rumination on his grandparents, their children, and himself, as well as a personal recollection of Disneyland starting with the opening more than 60 years ago when the ticket to enter cost one dollar.
Artistic director Helen Murray announces in her program notes The Hub Theatre has a “big crush” on Dawkins and his plays and they have brought his latest piece to their Fairfax venue and it is well-worth the trip to the John Swayze Theatre at the New School to see how right she is.
Written in a highly intimate and conversational manner, Dawkins’ recollections, performed in Chicago last year by the playwright, might be tough nut to crack for an actor. But director Matt Bassett made a supercalifragilistic casting choice and tapped Tia Shearer as the stand-in for Dawkins. Shearer should be familiar to audience members throughout the DMV theatre scene with credits at the Kennedy Center, Imagination Stage, Flying V, Baltimore Center Stage, and The Hub – in another Dawkins title, Failure: A Love Story.
Smoothly introducing herself and then segueing into Dawkins’ proverbial shoes for the ninety-minute monologue, Shearer makes the playwright’s words her own. Very quickly, I was drawn into the story and forgot there was a separation of writer and performer. Shearer’s ease with the audience and her effortless command of Dawkins’ story weaves a spell of which Walt Disney would be proud.
Bassett and Shearer, who have worked together for a decade, use a simple yet completely effective approach to telling the story of three generations of Dawkins’ family, particularly the women in his life. Dawkins never knew his local celebrity maternal grandfather Phil, an Albuquerque TV sportscaster, who died during a broadcast in 1963. His grandmother – known as Nana – Betty Lou became a widow in her early 30s and was left to raise her four girls (including Philip’s mother) during the turbulent 1960s and early 70s.
The beauty of The Happiest Place on Earth for me is watching Shearer inhabit the cast of colorful characters, introducing us to Betty Lou (slightly uptight, chain-smoking), “Big ‘Un” Karen (with premonitions of her dad’s death), Mary Lynn (the only one to witness Phil’s on-air collapse), Dawkins’ mother Beth (next to youngest, dreams of being Cinderella), and the somewhat bitter youngest sibling Nan (only two years old when at their father’s passing). Seamlessly and with just a flick of the wrist or a change in posture or voice, Shearer shares the memories of these women vividly and truthfully. Stories such as the older sisters convincing Beth their father had come back as a stray black cat, or her encounter with Disneyland’s Cinderella (among many others) are brought to life with color and humor. Dawkins’ affection for these influential women in his life is clear and Shearer captures the love for each of them, as well as their unique qualities.
The Happiest Place on Earth
closes July 23, 2017
Details and tickets
The usually unsuccessful pursuit of happiness and Walt Disney’s idealized (and totally white-washed) vision of what America was and ought to be runs parallel with the Dawkins family saga and their own encounters with Disneyland. Dawkins intersperses fascinating trivia (vomit is called a “protein spill” and the clean-up material “pixie dust” in the parlance of Disneyland cast members, for example) with social commentary that gives one pause. I, for one, knew Frontier-land was one of the first areas of the theme park to open in 1955; I did not know there once was an actual gun store onsite, conveniently located next to the shooting range where both grownups and kids could shoot pellet guns and bad guys and native Americans, (back then, referred to as “redskins,” of course.)
The world of Disney and the Dawkins family history is more fully blended by the simple yet effective stage design and projections (Debra Kim Sevigny and Patrick Lord, respectively.) With two screens backing up the action, family snapshots blend and dissolve into film clips and images from the 1950s “Disneyland” television show (known by my generation as “The Wonderful World of Disney”), and park maps. A small file cabinet of mementoes is used to make salient points throughout the piece as well. Likewise, Reid May’s sound design filled with Disney clips and atmospheric sounds add even more ambiance while the kaleidoscopic lighting palette by John D. Alexander lends an air of theatrical magic.
When the tour of Disneyland through the years is completed, and Dawkins (as played by Shearer) wraps up with updates on how Betty Lou, Karen, Lynn, Beth and Nan are today, he brings back the idea of happiness. “I don’t know if it is possible to be happy,” the writer states. What we’re left with is not a happy ride through Disneyland, but an intimate look at a family that had to work to stay together, make it through and mine some bit of happiness from life’s little moments. The stories we share about such experiences, like Philip Dawkins has done in The Happiest Place on Earth – to me, that’s the real story. They hold meaning because we shared them together and we relive them over and over again, to comfort us, and to reconnect with memories, whether they be happy or unhappy.
If you visit The Hub Theatre for this production, you might just be reminded of your own pursuit of happiness.
The Happiest Place on Earth by Philip Dawkins . Directed by Matt Bassett . Featuring Tia Shearer . Scenic and costume design: Debra Kim Sivigny . Lighting design: John D. Alexander . Sound design: Reid May . Projections: Patrick Lord . Stage manager: Jenn Carlson . Produced by The Hub Theatre . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.