BWW Reviews: A PUBLIC READING OF AN UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAY ABOUT THE DEATH OF WALT DISNEY Creates a Magical Journey at Wilbury
Celebrities, famous folks and iconic figures are often enigmatic, especially those who lived in bygone days, long before the internet and social media. To most of us, they are a mystery. From their exalted and distant perches far above the ordinary, average citizen, they alter and impact our lives. This can be said of the famous figure at the center of Wilbury Group's second play fo the season, A Public Readng of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney. You may think you know something about the man behind the mouse, as he's sometimes referred. On the other hand, this play sets out to offer a different view, one that's decidedly darker.
By Lucas Hnath, the play offers a portrait of Walt Disney that is far more complex and complicated than many viewers may expect or predict. It's not a simple, sunshine-filled portrayal of the man who brought joy to the world and created the "happiest place on earth." Rather, it's an exploration of a flawed human being who may have been sexist, racist, anti-union and a bully. The play challenges the audience to reconsider what they think or believe about this man and all he did to change the world as we know it.
Also fascinating is the way Hnath goes about piecing together his story. Four actors appear onstage in the roles of Walt Disney, his brother Roy, his son-in-law Ron, and his Daughter. The actor playing Walt leads the others in what appears to be a staged reading of a screenplay. He even reads the stage directions, such as "Fade Out" or "Exterior - Day." He directs the actors, telling them when to enter or exit and where to sit, and calls out "Cut To" every time he wants to change the scene or move things along. It's an extremely effective and impactful framing device and Hnath uses it skillfully.
Within the context of that framing device, Hnath digs deep into who Walt Disney really was, or really might have been. There are moments covering everything from Walt's tense relationship with his daughter to his domineering control over his brother to the strong-arm tactics that he employed against unions and landowners in Florida. Hnath shines a light on all of these moments while depicting a man who struggled to achieve his lofty goals. It can be argued that Hnath spends too much time on the difficult, awakward, depressing and sad moments. There certainly seems to be an effort on the playwright's part to focus on the negative and highlight the dark and even sinister side of Walt Disney.
Looking at it another way, it's interesting that Hnath chose to focus on many stories we're all familiar with. He spends a lot of time on the famous story of how, as part of a film about nature, the studio pushed a bunch of lemmings off of a cliff to perpetuate a myth about the animals committing mass suicide. Lots of time is also spent on the famous urban legend about how Walt supposedly had his head cryogenically frozen just before he died. Hnath puts a lot of emphasis on that story into his play, basically making it the climax of the piece, and it's a strange choice, especially considering it's been proven untrue and is widely known to be just a myth. Again, it seems that Hnath wants to perpetuate the negative stories and myths about Walt Disney, even if some of them aren't true at all. Even if there are negative things that are true, they are never balanced out by or juxtaposed with the postive side of things.
Still, Director Brien Lang and his cast create a fascinating and entertaining journey through this particular vision of Walt Disney. Lang does an excellent job guiding his cast through the fast-paced, rat-tat-tat dialogue of Hnath's script. The energy never wavers or falters and the actors play off of each other like a jazz band, perfectly speaking the words and language of the script's pages. Lang also helps them out with his staging of the play, moving his actors around to perfectly compliment the play's action. There's a palpable energy as they roam and prowl the stage and there is perfectly realized tension in all the right places and moments.
Lang has assembled a stellar cast, led by Vince Petronio in a brilliant performance as Walt Disney. Petronio does not shy away from the script's demands and creates a performance that ranges from sentimental to vicious, from pathetic to sleazy, from bullying to heartbreaking. He handles all of the changes in pace, tone and attitude perfectly as he leads the other actors and the audience down this rabbit hole, down deeper and deeper into the psyche of Walt Disney. He gives the role and the whole play a surreal feeling. At times, we're not sure if we really are watching an actual stage reading of a screenplay about Walt Disney or if we're actually in the mind of Disney himself, perhaps seeing what his mind sees as his life comes to an end.
As Disney's brother Roy, Tom Chace is just as mesmerizing as Petronio. They have a fantastic onstage rapport that just can't be faked. In the small, intimate space, you also can't fake the emotion or truth in a performance and Chace is clearly not faking anything. He makes every moment feel real and believable. Like his cast-mate, he also delivers a performance that ranges far across the emotional and psychological spectrum, from depressed to overjoyed to resolute, and everything in between.
In two smaller roles are Josh Andrews as Ron Miller, Disney's son-in-law, and Andrea Carlin as Disney's daughter. While they get less to do, they are wonderfully truthful in their performances. Andrews perfectly embodies the wide-eyed young man who is in way over his head but is trying to please his father-in-law. Carlin, an immensely talented actress who is new to Rhode Island, is fantastic in her emotionally-charged scenes with Petronio. She brings an impressive amount of energy and life to each moment she shares with the man playing her estranged father.
Mention must be made of the set and technical elements, which do such a wonderful job of helping to tell the story. Katryne Hecht's set is no less than perfect. It is an intimate space that allows the audience to get up close and personal with Walt Disney while being surrounded by images of him and the world that he created. Stephanie Traversa's costumes fit the piece and the period perfectly and the light design by Marc Tiberis II is equally perfect at helping to tell the story without distracting from it.
Aside from the script's penchant for playing fast-and-loose with facts versus fiction, this is a production well worth seeing. The play might not offer a flattering portrayal of Disney and may lean toward the dark side, but it offers thought provoking questions about the man and his life. It asks us to think about whether Disney did all of the things he did, both good and bad, so that he could really, truly cheat death, not by freezing his head, but by creating something that would change our world and lives forever.
A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney runs through November 22nd at the Wilbury Theatre Group, located at 393 Broad Street, Providence, RI. Show times are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2:00. Tickets may be purchased online at thewilburygroup.org or by calling 401-400-7100.
Pictured: Vince Petronio. Photo by Brian Gagnon.