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Philip Dawkins Tackles Family Tragedy in The Happiest Place on Earth

The playwright examines harsh realities in his new one-man show.

Philip Dawkins
Photo: Jeff Sciortino

In his new autobiographical production, The Happiest Place on Earth—a one-man show in which he serves as the one man—playwright Philip Dawkins makes a startling disclosure: “I haven’t been happy for a very long time.”

That would hardly register a jolt if it came from your typical suffering artist. But Dawkins, one of Chicago’s rising-star scribes, is known for authoring works that are, in the words of Happiest Place director Jonathan L. Green, artistic director of Sideshow Theatre Company, “kind and wise and very, very funny.” As it turns out, that lightness is fueled by something darker.

In Happiest Place, Dawkins tells a family story he grew up hearing—what he calls “the creation myth of my mother’s side of the family.” In 1963, his grandfather, a sportscaster in Albuquerque, suffered a fatal aneurysm on live TV. For the family’s first Christmas without him, his widow took her young daughters to Disneyland, a.k.a. the Happiest Place on Earth. Much of the play is a meditation on the amusement park and how its promise of joy relates to Dawkins’s fraught family history.

Dawkins plays himself as the narrator and slips into the voices of his mother, aunts, and grandmother—their lines coming directly from interviews he conducted with them. “I tend to do that when I tell stories anyway; I always write out loud,” says Dawkins, sitting in the one-bedroom Lake View condo he shares with his boyfriend, actor Bryan Bosque. Dawkins recalls once writing an argument scene at two in the morning and Bosque telling him, “You have to stop because everybody’s gonna think we’re fighting.”

Though a successful child actor (“I was always in commercials with people from Baywatch”), Dawkins hasn’t performed in 15 years. “It’s totally terrifying,” he says. At 35, he is the same age as his grandfather when he died. (Dawkins will turn 36 on opening night.)

In the vein of Mike Daisey and Spalding Gray monologues, Happiest Place is more than a family album. It’s also a critical examination of the very American notion that happiness is a birthright. Instead of believing we have a right to happiness, Dawkins wonders if it’s not healthier to say, “You’re probably going to have a real shit life and then you’re going to die. But moments of it are gonna be real fun—go for it!”

Which neatly describes the thematic thrust of the playwright’s work. From whimsy-heavy shows like 2012’s Failure: A Love Story to this year’s gay-marriage comedy Le Switch, Dawkins uses wit and sweetness as a knowing response to a harsh reality, not in blithe ignorance of it. “He presents the world in all of its glories and faults,” says Green. “I don’t know who else writes like Philip, who else mixes activism and love and humor.”

While Dawkins doesn’t accept his parents’ religious views (“they’re literal truthers of the Bible,” he says), he does share their belief in education. For the past few years, Dawkins has taught playwriting at Northwestern and Loyola. But with an increasing amount of theater work, he now has less time to teach. Ironically, with his play commissions ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, that means he makes less money. “Our entire system is built on oppression,” he says.

Yes, the playwright who is thoroughly charming on paper is deeply serious in real life. Dawkins puts it this way: “Even when I think I just wrote something really incendiary, I usually get back: ‘Oh, thank you for that lovely moment of sweetness.’ ”

GO: The Happiest Place on Earth runs September 17 to October 23 at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. $38 to $48. sideshowtheatre.org

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