Playwright Philip Dawkins’ 2016 solo show, The Happiest Place on Earth, uses Disneyland as a means to investigate his family history. The park, which opened in 1955, became a crucial institution for his mother, her sisters, and his grandmother after they visited it for the first time in the 1960s, shortly after Dawkins’ grandfather, a popular sportscaster in Albuquerque, New Mexico, died after suffering an aneurism live on-air. Presented as a monologue on a set that resembles a classroom, the original production from Sideshow Theatre Company and Greenhouse Theater Center is now available to stream from Sideshow’s website.
Shifting in and out of impressions of his grandmother, his mother and his aunts, Dawkins tells their tale concurrent to the opening of the park itself, and much of the narration places their tragic reality in stark contrast to the Technicolor magic of Disney’s parks and films. Cinderella, Snow White, Dumbo—these are creation stories for us all, Dawkins argues, a sort of unified American religion that delivers the promise of happiness, even when life takes its toll.
The false utopia of our American entertainment has certainly been interrogated before, but Dawkins remains firmly in the personal here, allowing the playwright to sidestep cynicism in favor of poignancy. The reverence he has for his family’s origins gives the show an engaging through-line, and when Dawkins plainly asks the audience “Have you ever been happy?” it registers as a genuine attempt at connection. Never does he seem to deem the pursuit of happiness as a futile endeavor.
Though most of the piece does have a straightforward approach to storytelling, director Jonathan L. Green develops several moments of welcome theatrical invention: the sequence of his aunt’s trip through the Alice in Wonderland ride shortly after she lost her father delivers one of the show’s most thrilling moments, as Dawkins switches between lines of dialogue from the film and an imagined, combative conversation between the little girl and her mother, all under shifting lights and sounds.
This is an obvious choice for streaming— the action of the piece is limited to Dawkins using an overhead projector to show pictures of his family and of maps of the park (the quality of the video does make it difficult to make out some slides, but luckily Dawkins always explains what we’re looking at). And Dawkins’ voice, which evokes the pitch of an antique newscaster, conveys the story with easy charm.
And, as everything seems to these days, the work has a fascinating connection with the present—the park only saw two unscheduled closures in its operating history, the first being the Kennedy assassination, and the next being 9/11. Of course with the current COVID-19 crisis, the park, and its sister in Orlando, will remain closed until further notice, according to the company’s website. The world was noticeably shifting politically in 2016, and The Happiest Place on Earth, with Dawkins’ hesitant but warm optimism, celebrated the heroics of an ordinary life. It’s good medicine today, for our new, isolated reality.
You can request a streaming link for The Happiest Place on Earth from Sideshow Theatre Company’s website. The link is “pay-what-you-can” with a prompt to donate to help support the company. Running time is 90 minutes.