2/18/2019 FUN HOME Out of Box Theatre
***** ( A+ )
(Bias Alert: I have worked with Out of Box Theatre and will soon do so again. I also have several friends in this cast and crew. Needless to say, I tend to view their work through approval-tinted glasses, and this column will no doubt reflect that bias.)
Alison Bechdel was raised in a suburban Philadelphia 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. 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.
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. For its Atlanta premier, Marietta's Out of Box Theatre has staged it in their small and intimate space, and, I for one, can't imagine a better introduction to this piece. 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.
Here, though, the cast, with their talented voices and expressive faces "sell" every conflict, every doubt, every ambivalence. And, owing in no small way to Annie Cook's musical direction, every song is a treasure.
Alison herself is played by three actresses at three ages (often at the same time) -- the always memorable Emily Kalat as the "oldest" version, fresh-faced Ashley Prince as her college self, and the extraordinary Celia Reed as "small Alison. Ms. Reed is a powerhouse talent, and it is her wide-ranging performance that truly centers this piece. A combination of exuberant tomboy and loving daughter, she openly adores her father in spite of his (frequent) temper tantrums and apparent dislike of children. And she sings so beautifully it made me want to weep.
Stephen Devillers has the unenviable task of making Alison's father sympathetic, despite his wandering eye and outbursts of anger. Somehow he manages to imbue the song "Pony Girl" with sweetness and longing, and his final "Edges of the World" is a tour-de-force of anger and angst. Props also for MK Penley whose Mother is a stone-faced portrait of stoic acceptance, and to Abby Holland as Joan, Alison's college love.
The cast is rounded out by Alex Huff and Micah Parness as Alison's brothers and by Jacob Valleroy, as a seemingly never-ending parade of men in Bruce Bechdel's life (and bed). As is his wont, director Matthew Busch is able to draw extraordinary performances from the entire cast, and has managed to tell this complicated story with simple strokes, keeping the conflicts clear, the ambivalences "in your face," and the emotions raw.
ArtsATL has dismissed this production as "too small," saying the "play deserves better." I could not disagree more. The play thrives, demands an in-your-face discomfort from its audience, and the intimate confines of Out of Box keep the characters literally at your side, close enough to touch. Any farther and we'd lose their humanity. Any larger and we'd lose the immediacy. And this play is nothing if not immediate.
It 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, and 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.
Yes, I know these are my friends, and I am almost expected to praise their work. That doesn't make my praise any less sincere, or their work any less remarkable. Fun Home is a small musical, a perfect "fit" for Out of Box, and an experience that won't fade soon from my life. (For the record, I have Alison Bechdel's memoir ordered, and will add a "review" of it to this column before too long)
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #OOBFunHome)