'Fun Home' wrenches and enriches the heart at American Stage

A coming-out story, and so much more.

'Fun Home' wrenches and enriches the heart at American Stage
Beth Reynolds

Entertainment doesn't have to be substantial. The word itself doesn't even attempt to convey any sort of weight.

But when entertainment is substantial — and let's not even get into the "but is it art" thing, OK? — it's imbued with the opportunity to turn into something more, to transcend "entertainment" (not that there's anything at all wrong with "entertainment") and become an important part of the shared cultural conversation. And usually, it's a resonance with what it means to be human that creates that elevation.

The five-Tony-winning musical Fun Home — the first, by the way, to feature a lesbian lead — is fucking important, maybe the most important Broadway work since Angels in America. It's a simultaneously beautiful, brutal and often hilarious look at familial relations and coming to terms with one's own identity. It's an empathy machine, one that forces viewers to deal with the fact that not everyone is perfect, and not everyone is the same — but that everyone is human, and everyone can (and should) relate.

Based on Alison Bechdel's autobiographical 2006 graphic novel of the same name, Fun Home tells the story of its author's coming out, in a repressed, dysfunctional family and at a time when doing so was still a very, very bold and perhaps personal-world-destroying thing to do. But it's so much more than that; it's also about Bechdel's family, and in particular her father (played by David Mann), whose tragic, crumbling lie of a life shaped not only the family's destiny but Bechdel's own sense of self and accountability.

The play frames the plot neatly around a 43-year-old Bechdel (played wonderfully by Adrianne Hick) revisiting pivotal past moments of her life as she's writing her novel; these moments chiefly occur during two periods, when she was a preteen of around 10 and when she was in her first year of college, and tentatively embracing her identity. The "present" Alison is almost always onstage, reliving these memories, either in the background writing or moving among the players of the time, gaining insight, alternately reveling in the joy of better times and overcome with emotional anguish at not having recognized certain things when they happened, or not being able to go back and change them. 

While there are plenty of heartwarming and funny moments — a particular highlight finds young Alison (Mercy Roberts) and her two brothers creating a musical commercial for the family's funeral home business, which begat the novel's name — the primary fulcrum of the production's drama is Alison's relationship with her father; as she discovers who she is, he has more and more trouble living his lie. Their relationship is an all-too-real balance of true love and tension, and when Bruce Bechdel's facade (and everything else) shatters not long after Alison comes out to her parents via a letter from college, she can't help but wonder if the yin-and-yang of her life decisions and his make her at least partially responsible for his downfall. This is the man who turned her into in airplane by letting her soar by raising her up on his straightened legs, who sent her Hemingway and Faulkner to read while she was at college — what happened? And was it her fault?

If that sounds heavy, it is, and Fun Home is some seriously heavy Broadway. The moments of joy and pain and uncertainty feel undeniably real and human, though, and that Bechdel found the strength not only to become herself but also to tell her story is the stuff of important entertainment. (And, yes, art.) It doesn't matter if you never had to come out to your parents — there is something here that resonates with the inherent trials of being human, and the American Stage cast and production team put that across with grace and talent. This is a profound work, brilliantly executed across the board.

Stay up-to-date on Tampa Bay arts, music, food, news and more — subscribe to our newsletters.