Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through Nov. 12
By ANNE SPISELMAN
“Fun Home” is a memory play, a dysfunctional family drama, a coming-of-age story, and an account of coming out all rolled into about 95 minutes. And it’s a musical with 14 songs, a sometimes operatic score by Jeanine Tesori, and a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron.
Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, the show first came to town last November in a Broadway in Chicago touring version that was not as moving as it could have been. Now it’s getting a a homegrown production at Victory Gardens Theater that’s better in some ways, thanks to director Gary Griffin and the stellar cast.
“Fun Home” focuses on the relationship between the artist and her father. We first see Alison (Danni Smith), age 43, at her drawing board sorting through a box of “junk” from her dad Bruce (Rob Lindley) and wondering why she saved it. But then we learn that he committed suicide by standing in front of a truck when he was the same age she is now, just a few months after she came out to her parents as a lesbian.
The rest of the evening basically illuminates the incidents and events leading to that tragic moment, starting with flashbacks to Alison’s childhood living in a house on Maple Avenue in a small town in Pennsylvania. The house itself is like a character, because Bruce has obsessively renovated it and furnished it with fine antiques, so it resembles a museum that his wife, Helen (McKinley Carter), and children are required to keep highly polished, hiding the chaos underneath. Bruce is an English teacher at the local high school and director of the family’s Bechdel Funeral Home—the “Fun Home” of the title. But he’s also a closeted gay man who has liaisons with a handyman and others (all played by Joe Lino) and has managed to escape the law.
Saddest, though, is Bruce’s failure to give Small Alison (Stella Rose Hoyt) the love and attention she craves. Instead, he’s an authoritarian figure who tries to mold rather than understand her, making communication between them difficult if not impossible, though she comes to see their similarities. The estrangement escalates when Medium Alison (Hannah Starr) goes to Oberlin college and has her first affair, with Joan (Danielle Davis), then comes out to her parents in a letter they don’t even acknowledge. The scene in which she brings Joan home to meet them is simultaneously awkward and rather sweet, that is until Helen’s heart-breaking “Days and Days,” an outpouring of her years of pain and denial, culminating in her telling Medium Alison never to come home again.
Equally gut-wrenching is “Telephone Wire” in which Alison steps into her own memories and takes a car ride with her father out to a rundown house he’s purchased to fix up but that has overwhelmed him. She knows this their last time together, but try as she might, they can’t really connect.
“Fun Home” isn’t completely a downer, however. It also has a lot of humor ranging from “Come to the Fun Home,” the musical advertisement Small Alison and her brothers, John (Preetish Chakraborty) and Christian (Leo Gonzalez), create for the funeral home, to “Changing My Major,” Medium Alison’s euphoric reaction to her first night of sex with Joan. Showing Alison at three stages in her life is a savvy strategy, and all three actors give remarkable performances.
Equally remarkable is Lindley’s Bruce. When I saw the touring production, the character not only didn’t come across as gay, more importantly, he struck me as a totally self-absorbed monster who didn’t deserve any sympathy. Lindley makes him more complicated, and we can see that’s he’s tormented by not being able to be himself, so we can feel sorry for him—at least a little. We also recognize that he loves Alison and his sons even if he doesn’t know how to show it or respond to them.
While Doug Peck’s musical direction and the small orchestra (on a ledge topping a back brick wall) are spot on, the staging doesn’t do the show justice. Yu Shibagaki’s spare set design fails to suggest the Maple St. house’s opulence, and Paul Whitaker’s lighting doesn’t do anything to help. Melissa Ng’s costumes are merely serviceable. Most of all, I missed any suggestion of Bechdel’s art beyond the fact that Alison has a sketch pad. But even without pictures worth 1,000 words, “Fun Home” is a winner.