Skewering Disneyland, the self-proclaimed “Happiest Place on Earth,” is reaching for low-hanging fruit. It’s been done over and over, and the Mouse still roars. In his solo show The Happiest Place on Earth, Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins certainly dwells on the ironies and incongruities of the now-63-year-old theme park, but he doesn’t bury the Magic Kingdom in loud satire or snidery. Yes, Dawkins’ script points out that at Disneyland, a post-ride vomiting episode is referred to as a “protein spill,” that the mess is cleaned up with “pixie dust” and that employees are instructed to never respond to a question with “No” or “I don’t know” but with the bright, shiny and hope-filled “I’ll find out!” But the Disneyland of Dawkins’ play is the backdrop for his mostly affectionate reminiscences about his family and his reflections on their coping with grief and with wishes that didn’t come true, whether wished upon a star or not.
Diversionary Theatre is presenting the West Coast premiere of The Happiest Place on Earth, directed by Jonathan L. Green, who shepherded this play three years ago in Chicago with Dawkins telling his own story on stage. At Diversionary, Dawkins is portrayed by Jacque Wilke, an actress immensely gifted when it comes to voices, mannerisms and portraying characters young and old. That makes her a natural for The Happiest Place on Earth, in which over the course of an hour and a half she becomes everyone from Dawkins’ grandmother to his own mother as a little girl to the theme-park’s Cinderella who greets and smiles for photos with the kiddies.
The play explores through Wilke’s storytelling and images shown via an overhead projector the Dawkins family’s perseverance after the sudden death of its patriarch. They turn to Disneyland for succor and distraction, a fantasy land indeed where the outside world does not intrude.
There are a lot of names and back stories to keep track of, and Dawkins’ ultimate question about whether true happiness is even possible feels heavy-handed. At the same time, however, Wilke is a thoroughly engaging performer who owns the Diversionary stage and makes this short trip to Disneyland a most memorable one. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 3/28-18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.