In her graphic memoir, Fun Home, cartoonist Alison Bechdel recalls a moment when, at about the age of 4 or 5, she was at a diner with her father and spotted a “truck-driving bulldyke” making a delivery.
“I didn’t know there were women who wore men’s clothes and had men’s haircuts,” she writes. “But like a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home — someone they’ve never spoken to, but know by sight — I recognized her with a surge of joy.”
Recognized her, not because they’d met, but because she knew without being able to articulate it that here was a kindred spirit.
Bechdel’s spare but evocative drawings convey all the fraught emotions of the diner incident — not just her own wide-eyed wonder, but her father’s annoyance, a reaction she would later understand as his discomfort with his unhappy double life as a closeted (and married) gay man. In the Tony-winning musical based on the book, Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeannine Tesori (music) focus Bechdel’s youthful epiphany on a partly obscured detail in one of the drawings — the ring of keys hanging from the delivery woman’s belt — and turn it into one of the most unlikely and exhilarating love songs ever written for a Broadway musical: “Ring of Keys,” a joyous realization of identity sung by a child:
“Your swagger, and your bearing, and the just-right clothes you’re wearing…And your ring of keys, your ring of keys!!”
An eye for key details characterizes Bechdel’s own work, too, so it’s heartening to see it informing the stage adaptation. The structure of the musical is also a brilliant corollary to the original. The grown-up Alison (spiky, passionate Kate Shindle) is working on her memoir and watches as Small Alison (a delightful Carly Gold) and Medium Alison (an exquisitely awkward Abby Corrigan) replay incidents from the past, along with her father, mother, and two brothers. It’s a device that succeeds at the difficult task of making the act of writing theatrical.
Kron and Tesori, with director Sam Gold, have found ways to make the songs seem inevitable, arising naturally out of conversation or bursting out in explosions of emotion that can’t be expressed any other way. In “Changing My Major,” Medium Alison exults in the afterglow of her first, glorious bout of love-making with her new college girlfriend, Joan (alluring Victoria Janicki): “I’ll take out a dementedly huge high interest loan/Cause I’m changing my major to Joan.” Remembering a visit home during college vacation when she and her father both knew the other was gay but couldn’t bring themselves to talk about it, Alison scream-sings, “Say something!/Talk to him!…Doesn't matter what you say/Just make the fear in his eyes go away.”
His fear does not go away. As Alison tells us early on, Bruce Bechdel killed himself by stepping in front of a truck not long after their non-conversation. But the musical, like the book, makes no attempt to sentimentalize him. He’s a difficult, self-involved man, a high school English teacher who inherited his parents’ funeral home (or Fun Home, in the family parlance) and is obsessed with order, burying his inner longings by trying to polish the surfaces of his life to perfection. A dedicated historic preservationist, he makes the restoration of the family home a lifelong project, treating “his furniture like children, and his children like furniture.” And he has little tolerance for disorder; in one scene, he wrests a coloring project away from his young daughter, calling her effort “a half-baked mess,” and redoes it in the colors he prefers. He’s caught offering beers to high school boys, and almost loses his job as a result. When he takes his kids to NY in 1976 during the Bicentennial Tall Ships celebration, he slips out at night to cruise for sailors in town for Fleet Week.
Yet even Bruce (the expertly calibrated Robert Petkoff) wins our sympathy eventually, in his anguished final number “Edges of the World.” Standing in the wreck of another house he’s trying to resurrect, he sings, “I see how fine this house could be./I see it so damn clear!/Oh my god,/Why am I standing here?” Tellingly, another line from this aria of confusion — “I'm falling into nothingness/Or flying into something so sublime” — is the same phrase Medium Alison sings after sex with Joan.
Father and daughter are alike and they’re not. He searches for authenticity in objects, looking for clues to their provenance to combat the inauthenticity he feels in himself. She searches for the truth of their lives, turning over each incident the way he examined precious antiques.
The script and the acting are as attuned to detail as the lyrics. Alison finds out from her mother, Helen, that her father is gay after coming out to her in a letter. When Alison asks, “Why are you telling me this and not Dad?,” Helen responds, “Your father tell the truth? Please.” That one “please,” as delivered with superbly understated anguish by Susan Moniz, contains a whole lifetime of defeats. Later, Helen gets her own chance to break out of the family’s long silence with the song “Days and Days,” telling Allison, “Don't you come back here./I didn't raise you/To give away your days/Like me.” Evocative of Adam Guettel’s “Divining Day” from Light in the Piazza and Sondheim’s “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along, two numbers sung by women facing the collapse of love, it’s nevertheless powerful in its own right, especially as devastatingly delivered by Moniz.
It’s possible that you’re thinking funeral home, suicide, family secrets, gay love affairs are not your cup of tea, or at least not your idea of a good ol’ time at the theater. If that’s the case, I have misled you — because even though Fun Home is about all those things, it’s also a whole lot of, yes, Fun. There’s a hilarious number when Small Allison and her two brothers (Luke Barbato Smith and Henry Boshart, both terrific) stage a “commercial” for the Fun Home, leaping in and out of a casket (their father would disapprove), hip-swiveling Elvis-style and using a Lemon Pledge can as a microphone. “You know our mourners/so satisfied/They like, they like, they like/Our formaldehyde!” The family’s impulse to pretend “Everything’s gonna be fun!” devolves into a kind of cheezy, TV-production-number dream sequence, complete with a sequin-lapeled host (Robert Hager, excellent in multiple roles). And the actors playing the three Allisons are truly wonderful — each one revealing different facets of Alison’s character with emotional integrity, great comic timing and crystal-clear vocals. The set and lighting by David Zinn and Ben Stanton ingeniously conjure up both the family's barren inner landscape and Bruce's over-the-top design aesthetic, with costumes by Zinn that are also spot on.
The thread that runs through it all — the attempt to parse your parents’ lives and loves, to determine how different or similar they may be to your own — is a journey we all wind up taking. And even if it's difficult to find that "rare moment of perfect balance" Alison sings about in the finale, the clear-eyed, tough, but loving approach of Fun Home at least offers a path forward.