THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH is a memoir about the family of playwright Philip Dawkins, as they cope with unexpected tragedy, trying to find happiness, and how the creation and magic of Disneyland mirrored informed his family history moving forward. Following this family’s pursuit of happiness in the Magic Kingdom, is a personal recount of a family journey that could be a Disney movie itself.
Originally written and performed by Dawkins, Jacque Wilke charmingly takes the reins as Dawkins and asks the audience to play along with a wink and a smile. Following the family through a traumatic year as major life change, we see Betty Jo, and her daughters Karen, Mary Lynn, Beth and Nan navigate after the playwrights namesake and grandfather, Phil, Albuquerque’s local sportscaster, dies on air in his nightly sportscast show.
Wilke is an excellent performer and commands the stage with a warmth and congenial air that keeps this family tragedy at the core of the story without losing the forward momentum or joy in the telling. She balances the many characters with astonishing ease. Even as the play progresses and there are so many to keep track of, Wilkes makes each character distinct and recognizable.
Disneyland facts are woven throughout the tapestry of the play to keep the audience and his family’s story intermingled. Some marvel at the “Imagineering” that went into the park; the scale of Main Street, how employees are called “cast members”, to things that seem foreign to present-day park attendees like how there used to be a real shooting range (pellets not bullets) in Adventureland, or buying booklets of tickets ranging from A (the smallest and least exciting) to E tickets (the most modern and popular attractions) to be able to get on the rides.
Drawing the contrast between the family’s loss and the American history surrounding the creations of Disney’s park, the play navigates the history that led to the utopia of Disneyland where everyone can be happy while they are in the park, and a family desperately looking for a place where they could find happiness again.
At one point the two worlds collide in a touching scene when one fatherless daughter, Beth, talks to another fatherless daughter in Cinderella. (There a lots of parentless and coping kids in the Disney classic movie canon.) It is in this touching scene that the play really seems finds its heart.
Deftly directed by Jonathan L. Green, this play keeps moving with a mindfulness and sensitivity to the topic. It is all supported by the scenic design by Kristen Flores, sound and music by Michael Huey, and lighting by Curtis Mueller.
As a Disney fanatic and former cast member myself, I love Disney facts and trivia. But this show adds too much unnecessary padding in that direction; the dedication of each land read, the ride of “Alice in Wonderland” explained in such length, or all of the examples of how politically insensitive some of the rides and exhibits could be. That time could be used to answer some of the questions that this play leaves unanswered, like why this story was so important for Dawkins to tell, but not important enough for him to mention himself in more than a few lines?
It’s an exploration of happiness, and whether that is something that can be sustainable, or only captured in moments. Disneyland as a whole is a Magic Kingdom where happiness is the main priority, but is the pursuit of happiness attainable, or even realistic for life outside the park? Or is it that reality, in its balance of the bitter and the sweet that makes life more satisfying than any fairy tale?
At 90 minutes with no intermission, it’s like getting in a line for a ride at a theme park. There is a bit of wait to get to the payout, but this play is worth the E ticket ride.
THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH is playing through April 15th at Diversionary Theatre. For ticket and show time information go to www.diversionary.org or call 619-220-0097