With a return visit to The Happiest Place on Earth, new gemstones are uncovered, adding complexity and currency to its bittersweet tale about dreams that a heart makes.
In its current incarnation as part of The 3rd Annual Logan Festival of Solo Performance at 1st Stage, The Happiest Place on Earth remains an understated winner. Tia Shearer once again shines in her cracker-jack solo performance under the assured direction of Matt Bassett.
My initial peek at The Happiest Place on Earth was at the Hub Theatre in July 2017. Not only do Shearer and Bassett reprise their assured roles but so do a top-notch creative team of Debra Kim Sivigny (scenic design) Diane Fairchild (lighting), Reid May (sound), with Patrick Lord’s projections.
So, what is new to say about empathetic Chicago-based, almost 40 year old playwright Philip Dawkins’ play about a family trying desperately to eliminate psychic pain in the safety of its yearly visit to a magical kingdom?
Well, there is plenty.
In my recent viewing of The Happiest Place on Earth, I saw complex shadings and timing in Shearer’s performance; especially those that illuminated Dawkins quieter dialogue about vexing cultural and political issues that are confounding America at the moment. In a time of bombastic words and presentations, Dawkins has a different approach to show the less digestible of America. He gently “shows,” so the audience can see for themselves and decide for themselves. His approach is not a loud, belligerent forced “tell.”
Call him old-fashioned, but Dawkins’ characters are not mocked or made to appear stupid. Each has human frailties. There is no “going blue” for cheap laughs.
In our current times of heated political and cultural invective, a shrewd Dawkins does not shy away from placing shining sharp nuggets of truth and wisdom within The Happiest Place on Earth for a clear-sighted audience to find. He does not hide that a magical kingdom was built upon false truth about ”the hard facts that created America.” He does not hide that a magical kingdom was originally built for white folk of certain privilege. Dawkins is candid that clean-cut appearance was the only acceptable way of life in the magic kingdom’s creation story. And that being an “other” was not acceptable in a magic kingdom, even if its creator, Walt Disney wrote: “To all who visit, welcome.”
In this time of heated “whose side are you on” rhetoric, Dawkins has a cooler approach to bringing white and class-based privilege to an audience’s attention.
Dawkins is sophisticated and nuanced in his approach to placing his points through The Happiest Place on Earth. His characters are not cranky scolds. Dawkins’ dialogue sneaks up on the audience so they might better hear what he has to say without the use of a weaponized pointed finger.
What’s more, Dawkins has lines about “why” some may do as they do and need a magical kingdom to go to once a year. Lines I seem to have missed in my previous times with The Happiest Place on Earth.
Dawkins has a narrator speak about folk who had been in two wars and had seen way too much carnage and death, who now feared the Cold War and the Atom Bomb’s possible use on their own children. They wanted a place of safety from a world full of grievous losses. They sought out a fantasy where they might forget their troubles and be happy for a few hours. With Tia Shearer expertly acting the narrator’s role, the audience has the opportunity to take in messages without a sense that they need to defend themselves for their own mistakes and transgressions.
The Happiest Place on Earth is a crafty, subversive tale about a family seeking shelter from the storm with complex broader cultural messages hidden within. It is temperate and unhurried, even appearing innocent at times. Just don’t overlook its sui generis manner taking on the mean spirited or overheated storytellers. Happiest may seem at first blush for those of a certain age recalling memories of their own long-ago youth. It is way more than a nostalgia trip for aging Boomer children. There is a bite to it that leaves a real mark.
Running time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission
The Happiest Place on Earth, presented by 1st Stage at the 3rd Annual Logan Festival of Solo Performances, plays through July 21, 2019, at 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA. For tickets, call 703-854-1856 or go online.