Bridging Albuquerque and Anaheim, Philip Dawkins’s solo play excavates family pain in a happy place.
Early in his one-man show, The Happiest Place on Earth, playwright Philip Dawkins runs through a number of family photographs. Each is taken at the same spot—in the “Frontierland” section of Disneyland, near the ferry to Tom Sawyer’s Island—but they span over several decades. You see, trips to Disneyland—especially around Christmas—are something of a tradition for Dawkins’s family. And like all family traditions, there’s a story behind it.
The heart of the play is the family’s first such trip. It happened in 1963, only months removed from the death of Dawkins’s grandfather, Philip Akins, an Albuquerque-area sportscaster who died of an aneurysm mid-broadcast. That Christmas, unsure of what else to do, Dawkins’s grandmother Betty Lou took three of her four daughters to stay with a friend of hers in southern California (the youngest daughter, Nan, was left with Betty Lou’s parents). That year, Betty Lou and her daughters Karen, Lynn, and Beth (Dawkins’s mother) spent Christmas eve at Disneyland, doing their best to outrun their pain—or at least temporarily forget it.
Dawkins also touches on the history of the park itself and uses its five different “lands” to outline the play’s first half. (He observes that Disneyland has always been a great barometer of what Americans find most troubling: If it’s absent in the park, it’s probably a problem.) For the most part, though, The Happiest Place on Earth doesn’t live or die on its grander themes. The play is content to stay with the Akins family, with Betty Lou and her four daughters. It’s their story, after all, that Dawkins is telling.
Dawkins is a charming, engaging presence onstage, with a real skill for bringing the various Akins women to life. (If the show has a “breakout character,” it’s his aunt Lynn.) Director Jonathan L. Green of Sideshow Theatre Company (which co-produced) keeps things simple, mostly getting out of the way to let Dawkins’s script and performance work their magic. If you’ve been thinking of checking out the Greenhouse Theater Center’s Solo Festival, you should visit The Happiest Place on Earth.
Sideshow Theatre Company at Greenhouse Theater Center. Written and performed by Philip Dawkins. Directed by Jonathan L. Green. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.