The Victory Gardens Theater production of the Tony Award-winning Fun Home is a lot of things but the most important one is that it’s very, very good on every level. It’s well-written, has great songs, and the actors make the most of every bit of the script. You can consider this review a rave, but it’s a rave with a caveat.
This play will put you through the emotional wringer, from laughing along with the charming and funny moments to weeping along with the majority of the audience in the truly sad ones. It might actually be too much for some people to take. I know that I am still processing some of it partially because I know that the story I just saw is a fantasy take on the author’s real life.
Fun Home is a musical of an award-winning autobiographical graphic novel by author/artist Alison Bechdel, she who invented the famous Bechdel Test bit of feminist theory that basically boils down to only patronize art that has two named female characters who talk to each other in a conversation not about a man. The musical Fun Home is the story of her growing up, coming out and dealing with her father’s suicide as she writes the graphic novel “Fun Home.” Yes, that’s pretty meta, but it works wonderfully well on the stage.
Adult Alison, the always superb Danni Smith, is on the stage much of the play, leading us through the moments of her life as they happen while she tries to come up with cartoons and captions to explain them. Her younger aspects are played by two other actresses, the amazing Stella Rose Hoyt (Small Alison) and wonderful and charming Hannah Starr (Medium Alison). They are all so good that when they all sing together on Flying Away at the end of the play nearly everyone was openly weeping.
Like most people’s lives, Bechdel’s has moments of charm and humor and, also moments of absolutely grim reality, but the entire show is infused with incredible sympathy for others, even when they’re at their worst. Her parents, who were clearly deeply flawed human beings, could easily have come off as villains or victims, but, instead, we see them trying hard to do what they think they should. To do what they’ve been taught is right, even at great personal sacrifice. We see them through Alison’s eyes.
It’s a play made up of moments, as adult Alison, our narrator, tries to piece together the meaning of her life and come to an understanding of what finally drove her deeply unhappy father Bruce, played by the incredible Rob Lindley, to step out in front of a truck on a morning in 1980 when she was away at college. The play is as much about him as her. And while it’s a story about, not a gay person, but two gay people, Alison and her father Bruce, coming to terms with who they are, it’s not the tired “coming out” narrative seen often in lesser fiction. There’s far, far more to both of them than that.
Honestly, the big gay numbers in this show, Changing My Major and Ring of Keys are fresh and delightful in the way they show a universal discovery of two important things 1) what it feels like to fall in love and 2) what it’s like to find someone that’s like you want to be when you grow up. They’re brilliant and brilliantly performed by both of the younger Alisons.
Alison reveals that Bruce Bechdel had left home and gone to college and the Army, greatly expanding his world beyond the small town of Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, but, much like George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” he returned home to run the family business after his father’s death. Only instead of a Building and Loan, this business was a funeral parlour, jokingly called the Fun Home by the family. It’s a weird job to have, and it’s played for laughs here (most notably in the hilarious fake commercial done by the children Come to the Fun Home), but it’s also entirely normalized. It’s a job and her Dad was a professional who cared for the dead and helped to shepherd people through difficult times in their lives.
But as someone who was professionally compassionate, he was very hard on his family. Obsessed with historical home improvement, he was continually hectoring his wife and children to keep their house perfect Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue . Keep every appearance perfect, because, of course, he was hiding a secret behind the façade. And that was that he was gay and hooking up with young men and underaged boys during the entirety of his marriage like a lot of the closeted, gay, Catholic men of his generation.
This play is really about Alison coming to terms with that and the way in which her father’s unhappiness pervaded her entire family even while he tried desperately to not only create “normal” life, but enforce it. He continually polices Alison and forces her into gender conformity as a child. And he emotionally tortures his wife and blames her for his unhappiness, when she feels as trapped as he does. But Alison’s mom comes through in surprising ways (played here by McKinley Carter with a shiny, brittle resilience summed up in the song Days and Days).
Yet both parents try as hard as they can to support and encourage their children, and that connection is also a huge thread through this story. The song Telephone Wire, where adult Alison takes the place of medium Alison and goes for a drive with her dad and they don’t talk about important things is one of the most real and heartwrenching moments I’ve ever seen on stage. If you’re someone with a dead parent, you’re going to think of half a hundred times like that, those opportunities missed, that you regret. The Bechdels were a close family who loved each other and were parted far too soon because of Bruce’s despair and inability to change.
And this, in a musical that also contains a hilarious homage to The Partridge Family.
It’s just a tremendous show full of tremendous performances. But be prepared. And take a bunch of Kleenex with you. Possibly enough to share with your neighbor. You’ll use them before it’s done.
Fun Home runs at the Victory Gardens from now until November 12. Tickets available here.
Photographs by Liz Lauren.