There are three knockout moments in Front Porch Theatrical’s production of Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical musical Fun Home.
The first comes when “Medium Alison” (Nuala Cleary – playing Bechdel as a college student) gets seduced by Joan (Essence Stiggers) just after coming out to both herself and her family – the two actors capture the tense, sweet, and excruciatingly awkward dance of emotions between two people navigating that spark of desire and attraction deftly and with sly humor, and you can almost feel the charged chemistry between them.
The second is when “Small Alison” (the extremely talented young Livia Rocco, playing Bechdel as a pre-teen) sings “Ring of Keys,” a showstopper that conveys her dawning identification with a butch lesbian delivery driver who has just walked into a local diner. Rocco connects beautifully with the lyrics of the song, conjuring both the unseen woman who is the object of her admiration and Small Allison’s dumbstruck wonder that there is someone else in the world who is like her “in a certain way.”
And the third happens in the number “Telephone Wire,” in which Alison (Drew Leigh Williams, playing Bechdel as an adult) relives the memory of her last opportunity to have a conversation with her father, Bruce (Daniel Krell), who committed suicide shortly after that visit home from college. She had just come out to her parents and then learned from her mother that he himself was a closeted homosexual; the song is an anguished expression of loss and regret over words left unspoken, stories unshared, feelings unvoiced, and secrets taken to the grave. For those of us of a certain age who were raised by similarly silent, stoic fathers, such regret is poignantly familiar, and Williams traverses the whole range of complicated emotions their stubborn secrets provoke, from anger to bewilderment to deep yearning for a truth that will never out.
Those three moments also form the emotional spine of Fun Home, which traces the real Alison Bechdel’s attempts to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of her family history and make sense of her father’s life and death for the graphic memoir she published in 2006. The musical starts and ends at her drafting table, bouncing back and forth between the present day, her childhood, and her college years as she conjures memories of her relationship with her father and uncovers clues to the gay identity he repressed (and also regularly expressed, with a series of men represented by Tristan A. Hernandez).
The conceit here is that “Alison” is writing and illustrating the novel on which the musical was based, and the scenes that unfold are panels in her developing story. But the graphic novel’s capacity to use visual shortcuts to move quickly across time and space doesn’t translate readily to a theatrical space, where it takes time and labor to shift a scene from an elaborately furnished living room to, say, a funeral home showroom or a New York studio apartment; a major challenge presented by this musical is the logistics of scene transitions. Director Spencer Whale has proven himself adept at managing swift, strikingly choreographed transitions in the past – his production of Big Fish with the same company is a memorable example – but here he is hampered by a set that has too many ideas and too many moving parts. Scenic designer Britton Mauk seems to be working with the concept that the world of the play becomes more real the further Alison gets in her work on the memoir: in the opening scene, for example, a desk stands in for her mother’s piano, and her mother Helen (Cynthia Dougherty) mimes playing on its surface; the next time we see the interior of her childhood home, a real baby grand piano suddenly appears on stage. I found this concept more distracting than illuminating, both because it adds an additional layer of complication to an already complicated play and also because it makes for a proliferation of different degrees of non-, quasi-, and hyperrealistic furniture that must be hauled on and off by both cast members and stagehands (I can only imagine how crowded it must be backstage).
The “fun home” of the title is the Bechdel family nickname for the funeral home which is one of Bruce’s sources of income. Small Alison and her brothers Christian (Eamonn McElfresh) and John (Daniel Frontz) actually do have “fun” there, too: a comic highlight of the production is a scene in which the three siblings invent an irreverent commercial advertising their services, boasting, among other things, that their mourners are “so satisfied/ they like…our formaldehyde!” The three young cast members nail the comedy of the scene with mischievous exuberance and energetic choreography; momentarily stealing the show, they are a testament to the wisdom of the adage about the danger of sharing a stage with children or animals.
But even in its lightest moments, the secrets that Bechdel’s father took to his grave haunt the edges of this musical; Alison’s happy memories are continually juxtaposed with recollections of his volatile temper, demanding perfectionism, and verbal and emotional abuse. Fun Home is, in many ways, about the toll homophobia – and in particular, internalized homophobia – exacted on Bechdel’s father, on his marriage, and on his family; it’s about the self-hatred that closed him off to his daughter and made him into an enduring mystery to her. But it’s also – as the three emotional high points of the musical demonstrate – a musical about social and personal change over time, as the shameful “family secrets” of one generation become a point of pride and identity for the next.