BWW Review: Hub Theatre's THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH Rounds out an Excellent Season
If you're looking for new, compelling, finely-crafted plays, look no further than the Hub Theatre. Their recently-concluded run of Philip Dawkins' autobiographical tour-de-force The Happiest Place on Earth is more evidence, as if any were needed, that they are a company to be reckoned with on the Washington theatre scene. Not only do they have an unerring eye for innovative scripts, they know how to give their playwrights the high-value productions they deserve.
Tia Shearer, one of the area's most charismatic and talented performers, goes on a tear as she performs an entire family's worth of characters in this one-person show. Dawkins' play centers on the colorful, tragic lore surrounding his mother's family, beginning with the sudden death of his maternal grandfather, a famous sportscaster in Phoenix, Arizona, live and on the air. Dawkins' grandmother, suddenly a widow with young girls to raise, and facing her first Christmas holiday without her husband, decides to take a big trip to Disneyland, the "happiest place on earth" of the title.
Given the sea-changes in American culture that have occurred since Disneyland first opened it's no surprise that Dawkins uses his story to explore the horrifically skewed notions of the American Dream, circa 1955 (and yeah, if you know anything about the 50's, you know it's pretty ugly). As the family story-teller, Dawkins also makes a point of interviewing his mom, grandma, and all his aunts about the antics that ensued on that southern California vacation. The result is a family story, interwoven with a broader history lesson and cultural critique.
Shearer, under the whip-smart direction of Matt Bassett, embodies a wide range of characters, male and female, of all ages. It's the kind of daunting character work that actors both admire and envy (as in, 'damn-I'd love to do this show myself!'), and Shearer is as precise in her performance as she is charming. Misadventures abound, of course, and there are moments that tear your heart out, as young girls now fatherless spread all over the Magic Kingdom in search of happiness. Shearer guides you through it all flawlessly.
Hub's production team pull out a few stops of their own, beginning with Debra Kim Sivigny's scenic design-two walls filled with faded pictures of old Phoenix and its desert environs, which double as projection screens where Patrick Lord evokes all the magic that Disney is famous for. John D. Alexander's intricate lighting scheme guides you through the many episodes with clarity, and Reid May's sound design often provides amusing twists of its own, along with the more conventional soundtrack.
The Hub draws from a pool of gifted performers and designers who make the rounds of any number of excellent local companies - Flying V, WSC Avant Bard, Adventure Theatre, you name it - and I mention these companies because if you've seen some of their work, you really need to include the Hub in your theatre-going next season. They have announced three fascinating shows, any - or all - of which should be evenings well spent.
A note on directions: The Hub Theatre, well worth whatever you have to do to get there, is quite close to the intersection of Route 50 and Pickett Road in Fairfax, Virginia; the John Swayze Theatre is located on the New School campus, just off of Pickett Road.
Running Time for The Happiest Place on Earth: 1 hour and 30 minutes, without intermission.
Production Photo: Tia Shearer. Photography by DJ Corey.
For more information about Hub Theatre's 10th Season, visit: https://www.thehubtheatre.org/
All Hub Theatre performances are at the John Swayze Theatre, 9431 Silver King Road, Fairfax, Virginia (on the New School campus).