It seems that the more we age and learn about the world, the less we really know about those who shaped ours growing up. What we once believed to be absolute truths, slowly reveal themselves to be nothing but images we composed to our convenience; but they’re images that we try to preserve nonetheless, which is why it makes sense that Alison Bechdel, the central character of Fun Home, happens to be an illustrator. When the show begins, we see adult Alison (Beth Malone) hard at work in front of her drawing table as figures from her past come to life onstage. A younger version of herself (the brilliant Sydney Lucas) at around age ten calls out to her father Bruce (a devastating Michael Cerveris), “I wanna play airplane, I wanna put my arms out and fly”, but her father has more important things to do. Besides working as a school teacher and owning a funeral home, he also concentrates on collecting knick-knacks for their Pennsylvania home and often fails to see that his young daughter just wants to spend time with him. “It all comes back," sings adult Alison, before confessing “my dad and I were exactly alike."
It’s this fear and admiration that gives Fun Home its soul; little Alison worshipped her father despite his bad temper, but as an adult she realizes that he had been living a secret life, making his unhappiness more understandable, without justifying his methods. Can Alison forgive a man who never found room in his heart to forgive himself? Fun Home chronicles the relationship between Alison, her father Bruce and her mother Helen (an extraordinary Judy Kuhn) through the point of view of three versions of herself, the adult one, the child and the teenager (Emily Skeggs portraying the awkwardness of being a teen with eerie precision) who had just left home for college just in time to discover that she might be attracted to girls.
Without a linear structure, the show becomes a stream of consciousness musical in which we see Alison trying to connect the dots that have haunted her for so long. Not all of them are terrible, though. She also has heartwarming memories about playing in the caskets her father kept around, and one of the show’s most delightful numbers has little Alison and her siblings (Oscar Williams and Zell Steele Morrow) perform a Jackson 5-like song about all the fun they’re having in their strange household. Teenage Alison, too, remembers falling in love for the first time, the object of her affection being the free-spirited Joan (a wonderful Roberta Colindrez) who insists that Alison’s father is much cooler than she gives her credit for.
With a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron (adapted from Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel) and music by Jeanine Tesori, Fun Home is the rare musical that touches the heart, inspires the mind and makes the feet tap along to the music. Tesori and Kron aptly pay tribute to music from the different eras in which we see Alison, while also coming up with sophisticated layerings which represent Alison’s overlapping memories. At the beginning of the show, Alison tells her father, “I guess I always knew you that one day I was gonna draw you in cartoons,” before adding: “I need real things to draw from cause I don’t trust memory." And yet, the show knows all too well that the story can’t help but be biased as it’s being told from Alison’s point of view. This guessing game of what’s true and what’s imaginary makes for a mental exercise in which we often have two or more of the Alisons singing about the same event at the same time. From within this cacophony rises the realization that life is made of the melodies that we choose to hum.
It’s quite funny to see Alison try to capture her memories within the little squares of the comic books she writes (the lighting design by Ben Stanton highlighting this beautifully) and it’s utterly heartbreaking to see her realize that the people in question are too broad and complex to be drawn, her disappointment perhaps represented in the times when a speech bubble bursts out of its original frame in a comic strip. Sensitively directed by Sam Gold, Fun Home makes use of theatrical devices in completely unexpected ways, the set by David Zinn (who also designed the costumes) made up of platforms that rise and sink in order to represent sudden flashes of memories. The truth is that as personal as Bechdel’s tragic tale can be, it’s also a universal story of children refusing to believe that, hard as they try, they might never have the last word when it comes to their parents. It’s fitting that the show closes with a small moment in which little Alison and her father were as close as they ever would be. Sometimes it’s surprising to realize which things we remember vividly and which fade away.