Often said, but underestimated, is the phrase, “life is stranger than fiction.” For cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who is now 56, her 2006 graphic memoir, entitled, “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” explored a life and family dynamic beset by torment, pain, and deep sadness, but also calmed by sweetness, love, and understanding. In her illustrative book, she tries to reconcile the memories of her childhood and adolescence with her unresolved identity as a woman in her mid-40s, and while part of this entails her lesbian sexual orientation, her step-retracing journey to find her place in the world extends far beyond.
By juxtaposing an undisturbed picture featuring moments of childhood happiness, with the anguish of a closeted father, and a profoundly betrayed mother, we are made privy to her formative sexual identification amid personal trials, and thus a courageous attempt to find peace in the present by picking up the pieces of an uncomfortable family history.
The poignancy and emotional complexity of this published narrative needed to be told on an even grander scale, and so it was adapted – with book & lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori – and subsequently premiered Off Broadway in 2013, moved over to Broadway in 2015 (winning five Tony Awards), and is now in the midst of a national tour, where it will be playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, Calif., through April 1st.
The Sam Gold-directed production is suitably simple in its staging, offering a private look into a well-maintained home in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania that boasts antique furnishings and paintings, albeit with fittingly modest lighting, and a down-staged orchestra that somehow stays hidden from view, but not the mind’s eye, despite being visible. There are no frills here, and nor should there be, for it is the open bareness of the stage that allows us to situate ourselves right next to the adult Alison, who points out the trajectory of her past selves — illuminating them into the foreground — as ultimately all three versions of Alison pour out their heart, on behalf of the same individual, for our acceptance.
Small Alison (10 years old) is played by Alessandra Baldacchino, who succeeds in getting across the subtle relationship nuances with her character’s father, Bruce. An example of this is Baldacchino’s capacity to demonstrate the buoyant optimism of Alison, who loves playing “airplane” with her dad, or enjoys horsing around with her brothers John (Lennon Nate Hammond) and Christian (Pierson Salvador) to “advertise” their dad’s funeral (or fun) home business (“Come to the Fun Home” – a crowd favorite). Even more impressive, however, is the understated confusion (while channeling Alison) that Baldacchino displays on her face when sensing that something is amiss with her “dad” (i.e., when Bruce makes up an excuse to go cruising in the middle of the night), as well as the poignant facial expressions she evinces – in tandem with her very well-sung lyrics – during the iconic “Ring of Keys.”
As the college-aged, or Medium Alison, Abby Corrigan delivers a moving, but also uproariously funny performance. Corrigan shines because of her talent to stay in the moment as a performer, listening intently, and thus reacting organically. She wears the emotions so well on her frame that we can hear her think when her rendition of Alison is initially averse to joining her university’s “Gay Union,” or when Alison meets an assertive and assured lesbian named Joan (Karen Eilbacher). Moreover, in the moments leading up to her sexual epiphany about Joan, culminating in Alison effusively singing about her declaration and pledge to her newfound love match (“Changing My Major”), Corrigan courageously gives her persona the carte blanche to embrace the passing awkwardness of one coming into her own and permanently crossing the bridge over to womanhood.
Equally effective in her role as Joan is Karen Eilbacher, whose disarming coolness – and even brashness at times – tranquilly balances the dialogue and non-verbal communication between her and Corrigan’s portrayal of the genuinely nervous Alison. Additionally, Eilbacher’s use of finely-tuned vocal inflections, which always stay within the sphere of believability, contribute to her lines that reflect a wide spectrum of pointedness, curiosity, and innuendo, all of which are delivered with a delightfully terse authenticity (e.g., Joan’s surprise upon seeing the lesbian-friendly book that Alison has been sent by her father Bruce).
As the older, or “present-day” Alison, Broadway veteran Kate Shindle strikes just the right chords as the cartoonist who wanders, narrates, and captions pivotal landmarks in her life, reflecting them against what has become of her. It is a necessarily “removed” performance, as Shindle lurks contemplatively in the shadows of Alison’s life, enabling the re-enactments of an already written story to be afforded the weight of the moment. That said, we can’t help but notice that Alison’s emotions are no different than ours would be given the circumstances, and when she heartbreakingly weeps for her distressed father, who commits suicide by walking into the path of an oncoming truck, we are heavily affected because we are right there with her. Just the same, we become conscientiously and upsettingly aware of how fleeting life is, and the torture we can and have all inflicted upon ourselves when we replay a memory with amendments about what we should have done or said if we knew of what would happen later. This is precisely the case during Alison’s last car ride with her dad (“Telephone Wire”), where Shindle does a masterful job of communicating her character’s bereavement.
The accomplished Robert Petkoff plays Bruce with a heart-rending agreeableness that is distorted and discomfited by his hidden homosexuality. Petkoff imparts upon the observer a complex tale of two men, one of whom is a doting father who will happily sing to his daughter Alison (“Pony Girl”), comfort his wife Helen of many years, and is a respected English teacher and funeral director. Bruce is a man who ostensibly has a passion for living, but perhaps not in the way that he does, for underneath the surface is an existentially despaired and desolate figure, who is relegated to a falseness that only dares to crack with acts of recklessness. Consequently, as the secrecy of Bruce’s homosexual affairs behind his wife’s back flares up, fanned by an inconsolable rage – the overwhelming heat of which can be felt by Petkoff’s burning interpretation – we see a dispirited man boiling and grieving for himself when he wrenchingly bellows “Edges of the World.”
Yet, as unfortunate as Bruce’s life is, it is Alison’s mother Helen (played wonderfully by Susan Moniz), who is arguably the more tragic parent. The unfulfillment and final unravelling of her marriage because of her domestic partnership to a man who was never on the same wavelength as she was — and how it has summarily nullified her life’s purpose — is like witnessing collateral damage in the wake of an eruption. We doubtlessly feel pity for Helen – a woman who just wants to feel merited and justified by her wifely and motherly efforts; but, by a similar token, we also ponder if her short-sighted willingness to make a life with someone who couldn’t conform to her expectations, despite Bruce’s best efforts, was the glaring mistake that became her undoing. Nevertheless, when she intensely challenges the damaging truth that has plighted her adult life head-on – which she previously repressed or was consciously oblivious to – we see the rebirth and chill-tingling vindication of a heroine who is adamant about no longer wasting any more time being disabused by reality (“Days and Days”).
Conclusively, “Fun Home” the musical receives the highest recommendation for examining Alison Bechdel’s life, past and present – the exploration of her sexual identity and the disconsolate view inside the tragedy of her parents’ life story – with a stark candidness and refusal to sugercoat. The result of this is an account and production that doesn’t shy away from its soul-baring vulnerability, and is therefore presented to the audience with all of its peculiarities intact — empowered by the flaws of the real individuals on which it is based on.
For more information about “Fun Home” at the Ahmanson Theatre, please visit http://bit.ly/2kRfark