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Theater Review: “The Happiest Place on Earth”

“The Happiest Place on Earth” plays through April 15, 2018 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights.
Photo credit:
Jacque Wilke

Have you ever expected to find happiness at Disneyland? I haven’t, but playwright Philip Dawkins’ solo piece “The Happiest Place on Earth” describes how his family, crippled by grief in 1963 at the sudden death of family patriarch Philip Eakins (a beloved Albuquerque sportscaster), used a family visit to Disneyland to dull the pain, if not to dispense happiness.

That shocking death – caused by a brain aneurysm while Eakins was on the air – sparked the visit to the Magic Kingdom that would become a holiday tradition for the family. Dawkins reports that he’d visited the theme park 20 times by the time he was 18.

Dawkins wrote and performed this piece two years ago in his native Chicago. Jonathan L. Green directs its West Coast premiere through April 15 at Diversionary Theatre.

Local favorite Jacque Wilke plays narrator “Philip” and close to a dozen others, frequently in rapid, sometimes head-spinning succession. Wilke is a terrific choice: she has the individual voices and quirks down pat and barely misses a beat. She also has an engaging manner that draws the audience in.

The main characters are Philip, his grandmother Betty Lu and his four female aunts: in chronological order, Karen, Mary Lynn, Beth, and Nan. Karen was “difficult,” according to  Mary Lynn, who “loves a good story, but lives for a good scandal” and “believes in God, America and aliens.”

Beth later became Philip’s mother. Nan, the youngest, never married and lived with her mother.

Dawkins has an engaging writing style that maintains audience interest thanks to his description of specific incidents. Best is the story about 7-year-old Beth (who liked to play Cinderella) getting lost in Fantasyland and being found and calmed by the kindly Disney Cinderella.

But the show would benefit from dropping the classroom setup and the extensive use of an overhead projector for family photos.

The show itself also meanders a bit, with too much time spent on a lengthy description of the “Alice in Wonderland” ride, and a somewhat muddled use of the park’s “happiest place” metaphor which ends by questioning the Disney philosophy that “if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.”

If only. And if only Dawkins would rewrite this piece to include himself – or write a play about himself – I’d be happy to see it.

Still, Dawkins is an amusing writer and I can’t recommend Wilke’s masterful interpretation highly enough.

The details

“The Happiest Place on Earth” plays through April 15, 2018 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights.

Thursday at 7 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (619) 220-0097 or diversionary.org