C Michael Whaley & Turn A Phrase Films

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney is every bit as ambitious as its title is wordy. Playwright Lucas Hnath, author of The Christians and A Doll’s House Part 2, presents an examination of one of the most famous and influential creative minds in history through a wholly unique framework. It’s certainly an ambitious undertaking for Flowertown Players and their Underground series.

A Public Reading is exactly what the title suggests. Walt Disney (played by Gregory Tompkins) reads a screenplay about himself, that he wrote, covering his life from the creation of his Academy Award-winning nature documentary White Wilderness in 1958  to his eventual death in 1966 of lung cancer.

The actors onstage all read from the screenplay, with Walt reading stage directions and camera cues. If you don’t have a lot of experience reading screenplays or working in film, it may take a few minutes to acclimate to this very different style of theatrical presentation. But I actually find what Hnath has done with the structure of this piece to be rather inspired. A man renowned for his films and infamous for doggedly protecting his reputation creates a screenplay meant to praise him — but actually ends up highlighting his worst tendencies? Yeah, sign me right up.

The cast is certainly game. Tompkins is joined onstage by Larry Spinner as Roy Disney, Rune Vaughan as Diane Disney, and Josh Kerr as Ron Miller. Spinner communicates the hurt of a lifetime of abuses on his face in every interaction with Walt. Vaughn and Kerr are sidelined for much of the production, sometimes to a distracting degree, since the entire cast remains onstage from lights up to lights down.

But once given something to do, Vaughn and Kerr steal the show. As Walt’s son-in-law, Kerr delivers a performance full of naivety and dumb optimism that contrasts perfectly with the bullying Disney. Vaughn delivers a touching performance as Walt’s estranged daughter, nailing one of the most emotional scenes of the proceedings.

Tompkins as Disney looks the part and he’s got the stamina to go the distance and do the heaviest of lifting. But there’s a depth to the character and the script that is missed in this production, and it’s where director Zach Rettig deserves a mention. The staging leaves a lot to be desired. Everyone is stuck sitting around a single desk for almost all of the 75-minute show instead of using the space in a more-effective way.

It’s a movie script, and Walt keeps saying “Cut to” to indicate everything from changes of emotion to alternate versions of conversations and shifts in his own emotional state. All these things are lost in the current production’s interpretation of the script, and it means a lot of potentially powerful moments are left on the cutting room floor. Rettig seems to enjoy and trust the script, but hasn’t plumbed it deep enough to give the production or the actors insight into really pulling out the gems in such an experimental piece of theater.

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