Everyone has their own Disney memories, of course, but I think there’s a dark side to that, one that doesn’t get much play in the rose-colored viewfinder in which Mickey and his ilk are most commonly situated. I’m not talking about how if you look really close at the field in The Lion King you can see dirty words spelled out or whatever. I’m talking about the moment when you realized the bleak possibilities, the inappropriately preternatural warnings, hidden in those G-rated nostalgia bombs. You turn over the soft, mossy rock and you see it: the seething worms, the dank dark. Your mother will die. An older “friend” takes an interest in you at a young age and turns you into a donkey. A close family member is plotting your overthrow and exile.
In a rather meta turn of events, the wolf in sheep’s clothing in the Wilbury Group’s latest production, the New England premiere of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, written by Lucas Hnath and directed by Brien Lang, is the man himself: good old Walt. Just up 95 a bit you can catch Disney Live at the Vets if you’re so inclined you know, holiday fun and all that but I’ll be betting on Wilbury.
But don’t just take my word for it Brien promises that the show will bring all the verve and vigor we’ve come to expect from this young troupe. “I think adventurous audience members, regardless of how they feel about the legacy of Disney, will find this piece compelling. There is a great mix of dark humor, tension and pure emotion on it to keep folks satisfied... and they can rest assured there will be no ‘On Ice’ element in our pro- duction,” he says.
As for the production, Brian says the title is “somewhat misleading.” The play is a fully produced piece, rather than a reading; the titular reading refers to something Walt (played by local actor and URI professor Vince Petronio) is staging in the last days of his life, a kind of orchestrated coup de grace befitting of the king he is. He’s assembled a cast for a cold reading of this unproduced script, but as the play progresses, Brien says, we see that construct fall away as the actors truly become the people they are playing. We learn about Walt’s vision for the future, his reading of his own past, his relationship with his brother Roy, and down in the cracks where the shooting stars and the bright lights can’t get in, we begin to really see him.
“This is the first time I’m playing a character who actually was a real person,” says Vince, who prepared for the challenge by reading two Disney biographies – one an authorized version, the other not blessed by the man’s estate. “It’s really interesting, seeing the different perspectives on the same events,” he says.
Like all geniuses (Vince draws a lot of comparisons to Steve Jobs, which for those of you who have also read the Isaacson biography of the same should not come as a surprise both were exacting if erratic leaders with a penchant for pedantry), Walt was a bit mercurial, often downright mean. “There are these people who are Disney fanatics,” Vince says, “and I don’t think they realize the kind of drive he had and what kind of person it made him. He was tough to be around. The positive spin was that this was all part of his creative genius.”
But did the ends justify the means? That’s one of the questions that Vince and the rest of the show’s team will explore, through humor and sadness, through darkness and light, a complicated portrait worthy of its complicated subject. After all, it’s not as if the play is trying to make a villain out of the man – that would be too simple, and not at all interesting to watch. Rather, Vince says, the play peels back the layers to reveal the whole onion, stench and all.
“He was totally ignorant of other people,” Vince says of his dramatic charge. “He was concerned with his dream and his vision. But hopefully, people will get something from watching this – they’ll see that no matter how right you are, no matter how much of a genius you are, you’re not alone in this world. Other people matter. And by the end of the play? Walt is very alone.”