A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney (Theatre Review): I’m Wishing…

Playwright Lucas Hnath’s (deep breath) A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney is more or less what you’d expect.

A ninety-minute, one-act play, Death of Disney follows the title character through the last few years of his life, when Walt – much to the chagrin of the company that bore his name – became increasingly focused on his dream of building a “Disney City” in Orlando, Florida. Today, everyone knows what became of that dream – lately the battleground for an incredibly stupid front in the incredibly stupid Republican-led culture war – but audiences may not know just how much Walt was dedicated to this vision, which would have resulted in a wholly Disney-owned municipality not unlike the company towns of old (or the now-abandoned plans for the Google-owned Sidewalk Toronto, for that matter).

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney (Theatre Review): I'm Wishing...
Anand Rajaram, Tony Ofori, Katherine Cullen, and Diego Matamoros star in Death of Disney. [Soulpepper/OtM 2024.]
Starring one of Canada’s finest stage actors, Diego Matamoros, Death of Disney is an occasionally interesting greatest hits of Disney lore, marred by a too-cute self-awareness and a tendency towards stating the obvious. If you’re even half-familiar with the Walt Disney story, a lot of the ground it covers will be familiar, including cryogenics, theme park planning, the Disney animator’s strike of 1941, family/succession dynamics, and, inevitably, lemmings. While it may not have much to say, the fine performances, nifty staging, and a few humorous touches still make this a Soulpepper/Outside the March production worth checking out.

Lucas Hnath is no stranger to theatrical provocations. The author of A Doll’s House, Part 2 (2017), which purports to continue the story from Ibsen’s landmark 1879 play, Hnath’s Death of Disney is a none-too-subtle jab at the corporate monolith which has dominated so much of popular culture for the past 100-plus years.

Death of Disney‘s central conceit is that we’re viewing a live reading of a screenplay written by Walt himself. Seated at the table alongside Walt (Matamoros) are his daughter Diane (Katherine Cullen), son-in-law Ron (Tony Ofori), and, in a wonderful supporting performance, brother Roy (Anand Rajaram).

Given the setup, the audience is invited to view the play with no small degree of skepticism: Walt can’t be trusted to tell the truth about himself, and when he does “script” moments where he looks bad, he tends to cut those scenes short. Walt’s habit of cutting off dialogue when it becomes particularly critical – as in the often-proclaimed “cut to!” with which he interrupts other voices – becomes increasingly frequent as the play goes on, culminating in (spoilers!) Walt’s death in 1966.

As a Wikipedia-friendly account of the latter part of Walt Disney’s life, Death of Disney has some curious omissions. His wife of forty-one years, Lillian Disney (a former artist at the Disney Company), gets barely a mention, while Mickey co-creator Ub Iwerks is overlooked entirely, notwithstanding his important role in major productions of the era, including 101 Dalmatians (1961). Mickey, Snow White, and Disney’s nature documentaries all get name-dropped (see above, re. lemmings), though there’s a curious disconnect from what we know of Walt’s final years, not least the Kurt Russell of it all.

Death of Disney occasionally seems more intent on telling a big-money succession story, centering the fraught family dynamics which bring together brother Roy, daughter Diane, and son-in-law Ron Miller (who, twenty years after Walt’s death, Roy would succeed in getting booted out of the company, heralding the start of the Michael Eisner years), than in telling something specifically Disney. Though written in 2013, long before Succession was a twinkle in Jesse Armstrong’s eye, it’s hard not to see the parallels.

The staging – a rotating central platform, exceedingly 1960s decor, including the audience seats – makes good use of the truncated space of the main stage at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, though some odd touches – why do the supporting characters all speak into old-timey microphones, when Walt doesn’t? – are never really explained. Still, Matamoros shines (as always), and Ofori is so good as Roy Disney you’ll swear he was born for the role.

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney is on now through May 12, 2024. Tickets are available here.