By Wesley James
Phillip Dawkins Happiest Place on Earth occupies a very strange, very rare theatrical niche. The show is autobiographical and, in many ways, based in time – it won’t work well without Phillip performing it, and much more strangely, it won’t work as well in a year, or ten years. It could, of course, be revised to stay current; but tone and message and existence of the piece thrive on the fact that, more even than most theater, they are dying as they are created.
The play is a fairly linear progression through the relationship between Phillip’s grandmother, grandfather, mother, aunts, and Disneyland. Through a series of pictures and charged stories we’re led through his forebear’s childhoods down to the long-lasting familial aftershocks of his grandfather’s poetic, dramatic, traumatic death. Dawkins’ portrayal of his family members is fun, and his exploration of their lives after the fall of their patriarch is exceptionally moving but also exceptionally honest. Not the gritty or melodramatic sense of honest, but the fond one, the little things we only remember by having been there.
Disneyland is a remarkable conceit for exploring a family; Dawkins doesn’t pull punches in explaining the real, often troubling backgrounds of most of the parks, but he also isn’t condemning them – like much of the play, it’s simply an explanation of how things are, with maybe a seized opportunity for a laugh. He and his families’ relationship to Disneyland serves as a portal into America’s relationship with it, then one into his own: at it’s heart, the play is about happiness. Dawkins explores himself and his connection to happiness in a very vulnerable way, which is part of why the play thrives in the likely brevity of its existence – it’s for him.
This isn’t to say it’s not also for us. The great strength of Happiest Place on Earth is simply our subject’s oratory skills; Dawkins has a humble and earned charisma, it would be engaging even to listen to him read aloud. The play runs into some of the common snags that tend to repel us from an autobiographical one man show: it finds powerful highs and lows but sometimes lingers, there are points where emotion seems to have trumped restraint, and the way many of the threads tie up in a row makes it feel like it ends more than once. Of all productions, however, I think this one is allowed these minor indulgences – it’s charming and engaging and fun for us, why not let it be for him as well.
This is a good show to bask in while it has the time, before it changes or goes away. Go and explore happiness and family and love, hurt and youth and Disneyland.
Happiest Place on Earth runs through October 23rd, 2016 at the Greenhouse Theater Center. More info: http://www.greenhousetheater.org/