1/11/2020 FUN HOME Actor’s Express
Alison Bechdel was raised in a suburban Pennsylvania Funeral Home. Her father, a High School English Teacher and Antiques Enthusiast, ran the "Fun Home" as a part-time enterprise. He also often cheated on his wife with a series of young and attractive men, often underage. Alison herself discovered her own homosexuality while in college. She eventually became an award-winning artist and cartoonist (Dykes to Watch Out For), publishing her graphic memoir in 2006. (**)
Her father committed suicide-by-truck. (Maybe.)
And her story was brought to the stage by Playwright Lisa Kron and Composer/Lyricist Jeanine Tesori, starting off-Broadway in 2013, and eventually moving "uptown" to win the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical. Actor’s Express director Freddie Ashley has (finally) been granted the license to mount a professional production (something he has wanted since seeing the original Public Theatre Off-Broadway production), and the result is an intimate, spell-binding journey into the dark/light ambivalences of family and “coming out.”
To put it into historical context, Bruce Bechdel came of age before World War II, when homosexuality was necessarily a “hidden love that dare not speak its name.” (A scene set in Manhattan during the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration definitely puts Allison and her brothers in the last years of the “Baby Boomer” generation.) He was (or believed he was) required to marry, raise a family, and keep his true self to himself.
Alison, conversely, came of age after Stonewall, and, following some initial qualms, embraced and celebrated her nature. The problem was, her father’s death came very shortly after she “came out” to her parents, and she couldn’t help but connect the two events. (Just to embrace confusion, the libretto of the musical accepts as fact that Bruce Bechdel’s death was a suicide, but the graphic novel only leans in that direction, suggesting it may have been an accident. Both Book-Alison and Musical-Alison carry the same guilt as if it had been a suicide.)
The play is structured uniquely. 43-year-old Adult-Alison (her father’s age when he died) is on stage throughout, sifting through memory (and memorabilia) to construct the graphic memoir that will be Fun Home. Her past selves collide and overlap, 10-year old Young-Alison and 19-year old Middle-Alison living out moments and defining her growth through the compelling and remarkable songs. All three Alisons are sometimes on stage at the same time, and the concept makes for an emotionally complex (and satisfying) through-line.
It helps that Adult-Alison (Rhyn McLemore Saver) looks remarkably like the real Bechdel. It helps that Young-Alison and Middle-Alison (Eden Mew and Marcia Cunning) look enough alike to convince us it’s the same person at different stages of life. And it helps that all three are powerhouse talents, young Ms. Mew totally embracing her initial thoughts (and exuberance) in a show-stopping “Ring of Keys” and Ms. Cunning totally selling her “first time” passion and giddiness in a rapturously memorable “Changing My Major to Joan.” When the three unite in the finale, “Flying Away,” it’s positively breathtaking.
Jeff McKerley has the unenviable task of making Bruce Bechdel sympathetic, despite his wandering eye and outbursts of anger. As he always does, Mr. McKerley exudes buckets of charm, succeeding in that unenviable task, making his “sham marriage” actually make sense, showing equal parts aggravation and unconditional affection for his tribe of children (his a cappella “Pony Girl” lullaby is especially effective). He is a father we like (mostly), one deserving all the depth of feeling shown by Adult-Alison (and her younger selves). His final "Edges of the World" becomes a tour-de-force of anger and angst and resignation that was a “sucker punch” to my emotional core.
Also in the cast is Natasha Drena who gives Helen (“Mother”) a stoic demeanor that fails to hide the maelstrom of anger and devotion that lurk in her own closet. Michelle Pokopac is a delight as Joan, Middle-Alison’s college sweetheart, as are Vinnie Montague and Alex Newburg as Young-Alison’s brothers. Juan Carlos Unzueta juggles numerous characters (most of whom are Bruce’s “conquests”) very capably, especially Ray, a handyman who shows tons of affection for the Bechdel kids without dropping a hint as to his true place in the household.
In a quirk of timing and rights, this show had its area premier at Marietta’s Out of Box Theatre less than a year ago with a memorable production in a very small space that emphasized an “in-your-face” intimacy. Here, director Freddie Ashley has managed to capture that same intimacy in a larger venue. Staged in a thrust configuration, Mr. Ashley keeps his cast moving, the scenes segueing as smoothly as Adult-Alison’s stream-of-memory. An elegantly papered wall along the upstage area tells the physical story of the Bechdel house concisely and easily. An unwieldy bed comes on (and off) occasionally for Middle-Alison’s college dorm that could have made for awkward pauses, but Stage Manager Emma McVey’s silent and invisible crew avoids any and all gracelessness.
My compliments also need to go out to Alli Lingenfelter’s Music Direction, Sarah Turner Sechelski’s choreography (especially “Come to the Fun Home” and a fun Partridge Family parody “Raincoat of Love”), and Joseph P. Monaghan’s lighting, which uses clever color tones to help define the “whens” and pinpoint areas that help define the “wheres.” This entire production is a wonderful visual treat.
Fun Home is about living your own life in spite of what others want to make of you, about coming to terms with sudden loss, or with self-destructive impulses that may be part of your DNA. It's about the fine line between being true to yourself and being true to those you love. It's about flying high enough to get the "big picture" but near enough to respond to the pain. It's about family, about accepting family no matter how much it hurts to do so. And, most importantly, it's about accepting yourself, no matter how much it hurts to do so.
This is an incredibly intimate and emotionally complex musical, and, I have a feeling putting it in Broadway Theatre (or, heaven forbid, the cavernous Fox Theatre), would kneecap its effect, dulling its emotional range to what can be projected to the final row. In the very capable hands of Freddie Ashley and his toweringly talented team, it is an extraordinary experience that won’t soon be forgotten
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #aeFunHome)
(**) A sequel (of sorts), Are You My Mother, was published in 2012.
For the record, this is the same Alison Bechdel whose “Bechdel Test” measures the representation of women in fiction. “It asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.” (Wikipedia)