|Tia Shearer in "The Happiest Place on Earth." [DJ Corey Photography]|
Set in a fictionalized American magical kingdom, “The Happiest Place on Earth,” playing at the Hub Theatre in Fairfax through July 23, is a wonderfully bittersweet family saga that actor Tia Shearer crushes in her solo performance.
Written by Philip Dawkins, “The Happiest Place on Earth” bounds well beyond the playwright’s account of his own family’s resilience over three generations of love and loss. Dawkins also found a way to quietly and subtly infuse the play with nuggets of truth and wisdom that resonated with me.
After all, I never expected to see the Declaration of Independence, with Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 commentary about the “pursuit of happiness,” juxtaposed with Walt Disney’s words from 1955, upon the creation of his very own 160-acre magical kingdom. Disneyland was a place meant to keep the real world at bay while white, middle-class patrons experienced a certain time-limited happiness.
Under Director Matt Bassett’s tender touch and generous spirit, this Hub production blossoms. Dawkins’ play is full of delicious humor and affecting, deeply emotional moments surrounding how a family pulls together to deal with a shattering event. But it is the performance by Tia Shearer that bring the life-force and soul of the playwright’s words to life.
“The Happiest Place on Earth” is mostly set in a fictional Anaheim, Calif., where a magical kingdom opened in 1955. A few years later, the young father of one particular New Mexico family suddenly dies, right on live television as he delivers the Albuquerque sports scores.
The year he passes away is 1963, a year of tragedy not only for this one family, but for America as a whole. The widow, her daughters, and several other close family relatives take off for the magical kingdom to forget their troubles. Or at least try to.
Can the magical kingdom be a place of newfound happiness? Can it be a place of solace and recovery?
Shearer portrays all the characters, plus the narrator, giving each their own styles, voice patterns, and quirks, easily moving between moments of being youthful and spunky, adorable, or full of a child’s pixie mannerisms. She is totally believable and enchanting.
Then there are moments depicting playwright Dawkins or his mother, Beth, at different ages.
Shearer turns scenes depicting loss and pain into a beauty of enlightenment and understanding. She gives characters and scenes great heart.
Shearer is clearly a natural with comedy or portraying a lost innocence and utter joy. But there is one particularly poignant scene, where little daughter Beth deals with pangs of loss, that brought me to tears. I will not give it away, but it involved Beth as a little girl seeing herself as Cinderella talking to an older, taller Cinderella at the magical kingdom.
The Hub’s technical design team for “The Happiest Place on Earth” includes Deb Kim Sivigny (set and costumes), John D. Alexander (lighting), Reid May (sound), Deb Criere and Kay Rsaza (props), and Patrick Lord (projections). Together, they produce a sense of remembered, sepia nostalgia which then pops into reality.
The set itself is basically a two-drawer metal filing cabinet full of props with several “play” areas and several large rear screens for the projection of images from the 1950s-60s era and family album photos.
Let me add this side note for those of certain age. Memories of your own youth before a small black-and-white television set may flood you, as words such as “Spin and Marty,” Davy Crockett, Fantasyland, and Tomorrow Land whoosh into your being. When you gaze at the projected depiction of Sleeping Beauty’s castle as a certain show’s theme music plays, it may cause you to involuntarily smile.
Escaping into the magical world of “The Happiest Place on Earth” was a delightful evening for me. The play is singular, fanciful, and acted with heart, intelligence, and imagination. There is wit, laughs, tears, and laughs again. Shearer actively guided me into a family’s journey at a place built for happiness.
Then come doses of reality, if we are wise to the way life really happens. But when Shearer took my hand at the top of the show, I felt safe and comfy like the little kid I once was at a time when I believed that there is always hope to be found and someone to protect me.
“The Happiest Place on Earth” is a little lovely gem discovered by the Hub’s artistic director, Helen Murray, that she has kindly placed before us. Really, it truly is.
Where and when: “The Happiest Place on Earth plays through July 23, presented by The Hub Theatre performing in the New School., 9431 Silver King Court, Fairfax.
Performances are 8 p.m. on July 14, 2 and 8 p.m. on July 15, 2 and 7 p.m. on July 16, 8 p.m. on July 21, 2 and 8 p.m. on July 22, and 2 and 7 p.m. on July 23. Tickets can be purchased at the door or online. Tickets are $32 for adults and $22 for students and seniors.
This piece is based on a review that originally appeared in DC Metro Theater Arts July 9.