Regional Reviews: San Diego
The Happiest Place on Earth
Also see David's review of A Jewish Joke
The Happiest Place on Earth is focused on the aftermath of a tragedy. Philip's sportscaster grandfather, Philip Akins, was a beloved Albuquerque patriarch with a wife, Betty Lou, and four daughters. Not long after a fateful broadcast began, he suddenly passed away on live television from a brain aneurysm. Not yet over the grief from Philip's untimely death, Betty took most of her children on a trip to Disneyland. Their vacation was full of distinct memories that were both funny and sad.
Dawkins' title is just one of many references to Walt Disney, his company, the park, and his legacy in this story. Although there are instances where the contrasts between real life and Disneyland come across as forceful, Dawkins' treatment of the park is very evenhanded. Elements such as racism and sexism, sometimes associated with the park, are discussed, and positive elements, including the overall uniqueness of Walt's vision, are celebrated. In the process, Philip shares several interesting facts about Disneyland's past and his own family.
Because so much of the dialogue is about the people closest to Dawkins, his theatrical piece is a love letter to his family. Sometimes, that causes a few situations to feel a little dragged out. Certain details are discussed for several minutes and his ultimately moving conclusion spends a little too much time on the fates of Phillip's mother and aunts. Still, Dawkins has written them as three-dimensional people with interesting lives. Betty and his conspiracy-theory loving aunt Mary Lynn, in particular, come across as fascinating individuals. As women are the main focus of the play, it makes sense that Wilke, in a one-person show, plays Philip and all the female roles.
Wilke keeps the audience entertained during the entire production. Many scenes are a mix of different emotions, and she navigates through them with a self-assured handling of the material. Whether reenacting a bittersweet conversation between Dawkins' mother Beth and a Disneyland cast member as Cinderella, or sharing information about the different Magic Kingdom lands, Wilke infuses the plot with humor and personality. Her voices for Beth, Betty, Mary Lynn and others fit the characteristics of the Akins clan. There are a few depressingly bleak speeches as well, which Wilke handles with powerful sensitivity.
Performed in the style of a school presentation in Kristen Flores' classroom setting, director Jonathan L. Green stages the event in a fashion similar to an educational experience. Photos that Green incorporates on an overhead projector are used to help visually tell the story. Curtis Mueller's lighting and Michael Huey's audio are incorporated heavily during a flashback about "Alice in Wonderland." It's a refreshing moment that's stylistically different from the rest of the production and is themed like the classic Disney dark ride.
Since Disneyland is such a beloved park, Dawkins wants his narrative to be a universal one. Despite featuring numerous situations that feel personal, there are others that are easy to connect to and are accessible. Everyone from millennials to older generations can find plenty to enjoy throughout the Diversionary interpretation. At the end of the day, though, it is Wilke's acting that will stick with you. Every feeling she conveys rings true.
The Happiest Place on Earth, through April 15, 2018, at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., San Diego CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at about $22.50 and can be purchased online at www.diversionary.org or by phone at 1-619-220-0097.