Review: At Diversionary, ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’ portrays family drama, and it’s no Cinderella story


In Philip Dawkins’ autobiographical solo play “The Happiest Place on Earth,” Disneyland is the place where his grieving relatives went to escape their crushing sadness in December 1963.

But unlike the finale in all Disney animated films, there’s no happy ending in this 90-minute comedy-drama, which opened Saturday in its West Coast premiere at Diversionary Theatre.

Dawkins wrote and starred in the play’s Chicago world premiere two years ago. For this run, versatile San Diego actor Jacque Wilke takes on the challenging, multi-character role.

Wilke has long been one of San Diego’s best actors, but in her solo play debut, she’s often astonishing. She carves distinct and instantly recognizable personas for nearly a dozen characters. She’s funny and heartbreaking. She’s authentic, likable and engaging.

Wilke is everything director Jonathan L. Green could ask for in the role. Unfortunately, the play itself needs rethinking and reshaping.

Dawkins’ has clear talent as a writer. His style is similar to that of David Sedaris: Witty, observational, direct and wryly funny with an easygoing narrative flow.

The play is about Dawkins’ own grandparents and their four daughters, and his crafting of their characters is masterful. One standout is his colorful, conspiracy theory-loving aunt Mary Lynn. Also, in one especially moving and well-written scene, Dawkins’ 7-year-old mother, Beth, gets lost at Disneyland and has a heartrending breakdown in front of the park’s kindly, costumed Cinderella.

But his use of Disneyland as an overarching metaphor for this family’s adventure toward healing gets stretched to the breaking point, especially an over-the-top psychedelic trip through the park’s “Alice in Wonderland” ride. There’s also too much unrelated Disney trivia that clouds the central family narrative.

But most of all, Dawkins wrote this true-to-life play about the shocking and very public death of his namesake grandfather, Phil, and the scars it left behind on his wife, Betty Jo, and their daughters Karen, Mary Lynn, Beth and Nan.

He narrates — in this case Wilke breaks the fourth wall in the opening seconds to tell the audience she’s “Philip” the playwright — but he’s as invisible a presence in the story as the empty suit and mouse ears hat on the cover of the printed program handed out at the door.

All we learn about Dawkins is a handful of lines in the play: He’s gay, he’s been unhappy for many years and he visited Disneyland 20 times in his first 18 years.

Why is he unhappy? Why was he compelled to tell his relatives’ story and not his own? What does Disney mean to him? Why is the play staged with an overhead projector in an old-fashioned classroom?

Dawkins didn’t get licensing permission from Disney for any creative or design content, so the physical production is simple, with a few imaginative surprises tucked in. Scenic design is by Kristen Flores, sound and music by Michael Huey, lighting by Curtis Mueller, props by Bonnie Durben and a single costume by Elisa Benzoni.

The gay community has long embraced the world of Disney. Many say Disneyland inspires the nostalgia of their uncomplicated childhoods and they relate to Disney film protagonists, who are virtually all outsiders with unconventional dreams.

In one brief reference, “Philip” admits to the audience he sees his own reflection in a Disney character. But there’s so much more to tell here, and with reworking, this play could fill in the empty spaces.

“The Happiest Place on Earth”

When: 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through April 15.

Where: Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., University Heights

Tickets: About $22.50-$50 (discounts available)

Phone: (619) 220-0097

Online: Twitter: @pamkragen