Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Hnath's script weaves together several key moments in Walt's life, including his desire to branch out into the real world after spending so much time in the fantasyland of animation by making nature documentaries, the conflict that happened when the animators at the studio unionized, his master plan to create a city of the future in Florida, as well as his desire to have his body, or at least his head, frozen and put in cryonic storage after he dies. It also portrays the conflicted relationships he had with his brother and daughter.
With Disney providing the narration for the screenplay (such as, "Interior: Walt's Office," or "Close Up on Roy", etc.), Hnath has placed one of the world's foremost storytellers into the role of telling his own life story. But it's also as if Hnath wrote a screenplay from Disney's perspective as a way for Disney to make amends before he dies. Te iconic man doesn't exactly come across as beloved. Instead, he is painted as a profanity-spewing control freak who is losing control and is frightened, and who refuses to slow down as he realizes there isn't enough time left to accomplish all of his ideas. By having Walt provide the screenplay narration, it also means he is able to interject the word "cut to" as not only a way to move from one scene to another but also a way for Walt to stop scenes that are too uncomfortable for him to deal with. He also continues to smoke and drink even right after coughing and spitting up blood into a tissue, the side effects of the throat cancer that is eating away his body. He even threatens his daughter for not naming her son after him and attempts to blame all of the errors of the past on his brother. Turns out the creator of the happiest place on earth, at least from Hnath's psychotic analysis, isn't so happy after all.
Hnath's staccato, rapid-paced dialogue in several scenes comes across as somewhat unnatural, and the play itself could prove somewhat difficult for an audience to fully be pulled into, due to the somewhat chaotic way it jumps around. However, under the tight and crisp direction of Christopher Haines, the poetic and lyrical dialogue is handled expertly by a fine cast.
Matt Zimmerer is incredible as Walt, painting him as somewhat delusional and possibly even insane in his inability to see the truth. Nuanced facial expressions that show the pain and confusion he feels contribute to an overall expert portrayal of the creative and revolutionary man. Zimmerer beautifully embodies this optimistic yet irritated individual who hates that he isn't always in control of not only his creative projects but also his death. Zimmerer even looks a little like Disney, which helps us believe the illusion that Walt is presenting his life story to us in screenplay form.
Jeffrey Middleton is perfectly soft spoken as Walt's submissive sidekick of a brother, Roy. At one point, when Walt is getting toward the end of his life, he states in his script direction "Roy cries"but that is one emotion that Walt doesn't have control over. The stoic look on Middleton's face during that moment beautifully portrays the feelings that Hnath wants us to believe Roy had toward his brother. As Walt's son-in-law, Nick Buchanan is energetic and eager to please the man who doesn't like him, and Storme Sundberg is direct and strong as Walt's daughter, especially in the scene when she tells her father why she doesn't want to name her son after him.
Haines' set design is simple yet effective in how it portrays a table in a room where the actors are reading their scripts. His lighting design is bright for the majority of the show, but perfectly adjusted for a superb ending visual.
Though it is slightly rough and different from other plays, hours after viewing this production I find myself thinking back to how hypnotic and sad it was. The combination of Hnath's meandering yet layered and beautiful script, Haines' direction, and Zimmerer's portrayal will actually make you feel sympathetic toward this overgrown child of a man who believes anything is possible, in both life and in death, simply because he's Walt Disney.
A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, through March 10, 2018, at iTheatre Collaborative, at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix AZ. Information for this show and upcoming productions can also be found at www.itheatreaz.org.
Written by Lucas Hnath
* Member, Actors' Equity Association