I’m a firm believer in the notion that live theatre is one of the most powerful art forms in existence. The inherently ephemeral relationship that forms between performers and their audience is a once in a lifetime moment. No two performances will ever be identical. The audience witnessing Fun Home as I write this will see a slightly different variation of the show than the one I attended Wednesday night. The script will be the same. It might even have all of the same performers, assuming nobody got sick or needed an understudy. But the audience will be comprised of a couple thousand new faces, likely experiencing the show for the first time. And each member of that audience will be bringing their own history into the show, just as I did, with potentially drastically different results. Even knowing the show from its soundtrack (or perhaps especially because I knew the show from its soundtrack), I didn’t expect to see so much of my own story up there onstage, but I did. For about two-hours, the touring company took me on a personal roller coaster of emotions as I saw aspects of my own past played out on that stage: the very one I walked across when I graduated from Arizona State University nearly a decade ago.
Fun Home is based on the graphic novel memoir of the same name by Alison Bechdel and tells her struggle to connect with her father through the memories of her past. Alison grew up to be a lesbian cartoonist, while her father was a closeted high school teacher and funeral director. The titular “Fun Home” was the name the kids used when referring to the Bechdel Funeral Home the family ran. We see Alison portrayed at three points in her life. Modern-day Alison (Kate Shindle) serves as the show’s narrator and window to the past; we’re looking back on these memories through her own eyes. Small Alison (Carly Gold) shows the precocious elementary school-era version, a tomboy who likes to draw and perform fake commercials with her brothers. Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan) examines the college-aged sexual awakening phase of our protagonist. The aforementioned father Bruce (Robert Petkoff) struggles with his own sexuality throughout the play and Alison doesn’t even learn of his true nature until after she comes out to her parents. But Alison and her father tragically never manage to connect over this shared element of their lives before Bruce walked into traffic on the highway and was killed. While these story beats may seem like spoilers, they’re actually announced fairly early on in the story so the suspense doesn’t come from the plot so much as the relationships between the characters.
At its heart, Fun Home manages to tell a brutally heartbreaking story about a parent and child who just can’t manage to communicate, even when sharing this huge potential bonding point. A lot of this stems from the era. Alison grew up idolizing the Jackson Five and Partridge Families of the time and homosexuality still was not something spoken about freely. Because of this, Bruce often had to suppress his own inclinations, occasionally getting himself into trouble by acting upon an affinity to younger men, straining his marriage and relationship to his family in the process.
Bruce is a master of passive-aggression. When Alison is working on a drawing for school, Bruce tries to step in and show her how he can make it better. When she talks about preferring her cartoon approach to his realism, he walks away saying, “you want to take some half-baked mess into school? You want to embarrass yourself? Doesn’t matter to me. Do what you want. I don’t care,” until Small Alison acquiesces and asks for his help after all. It’s maddening as an audience member wanting to see a nice, healthy family relationship. But it also struck a nerve as I thought of all the times my own parents reminded me how much more money I’d make if I had become an engineer instead. Furthermore, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have a strained relation with my father at all, we do tend to have a very superficial relationship, only ever really skimming the surface-level topics of conversation. So as Bruce and Alison fail time and time again to really connect and have anything resembling a truly meaningful conversation, I found myself tearing up at the realization that I’ve similarly never had that real connection with my own father. It’s just not how our relationship works. And even though he’s still here (hell, I’ll be grabbing my normal Saturday lunch with him and the rest of my local family tomorrow), I know that it’s unlikely we’ll ever really connect over anything on a deeper level. So I suppose those tears were me mourning over the relationship we’ll never have.
As I’ve indicated, the drama of the show really hit hard, but the comedy works well, too. The children in the show are charming. Small Alison is joined by her two brothers: Christian and John (Luke Barbato Smith and and Henry Boshart, respectively). One of the highlight moments for all three is their delightfully-staged “commercial” for the Fun Home, set to a very Jackson 5-inspired tune (“Come to the Fun Home”), as the trio dances and jump around an ornate casket telling their imaginary cameras of all of the great selling points of the Bechdel Funeral Home. Additionally, Medium Alison excels at her awkward coming of age experiences with her college girlfriend Joan (Victoria Janicki). She absolutely nails the character’s bumbling naivete after her first night with Joan and her excitement to “change her major to Joan” in an endearing soliloquy (“Changing My Major”).
Knowing that the original Broadway production took place in a small New York theatre in the round, I was somewhat curious to see how the set would be adapted for Gammage Auditorium’s large proscenium. The first part of the show bounces from a desk symbolizing Alison’s present-day studio, some ornate furniture symbolizing the Bechdel home and the eclectic care Bruce puts into it, and a bed for Medium Alison’s dorm room; all on an otherwise largely barren set with a facade in the back made to appear like the back of the stagedoor, with the band off to the side. A flat wall flies in midway through the show, representing a dingy New York apartment that Bruce stayed in during a more troubled part of his marriage, but that wall eventually rotates up, turning into a ceiling for the much more ornate Bechdel home that Medium Alison and Joan visit. While I think I would have been content with the simpler piecemeal set design elements that open the show, I appreciate that a typically Broadway-going audience might be looking for more spectacle and magic so I can appreciate that the unseen transformation likely impressed a lot of people when that wall started rotating up. Thematically, it also works nicely as Alison is now seeing a clearer, fuller picture of her house for the very first time in her life, now that she knows who she is, who her father is, and what her mother Helen (Susan Moniz) has gone through.
Fun Home was incredibly touching. I’ve enjoyed the soundtrack here and there since it won the Tony Award for Best Musical a couple years ago but seeing the show live in its entirety really added a new layer I was not prepared for, but I’m so grateful to have experienced.