By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic (WYES-TV, “Steppin’ Out”)
Based on the graphic novel by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the 2015 Best Musical Tony Award winner – Fun Home – was the first Tony Award-winning production to boast an all-female creative team, featuring the sumptuous music of Jeanine Tesori and insightful lyrics and a riveting book by Lisa Kron.
In many ways, Bechdel is the unseen force whose drawings shaped much of the rest of the work on stage. The autobiographical material within the original work documents her relationship with her parents, especially her overwrought, closeted gay father Bruce (Jason Dowies), and explores her life experiences in coming out as a lesbian while in college.
It is a coming of age tale in which her character is represented by three different actresses, each depicting a period in Bechdel’s life: pre-pubescent (Camille Burkey), post-adolescent (Taylor Lewis) and adult (Chrissy Bowen).
“Fun Home” established Bechdel as a major figure in the lesbian community-at-large. She took Hollywood to task for making movies about women fixating on men and the result – her invention of the so-called “Bechdel test” – was intended to act as a measure by which two female characters would pass the test if they could converse for 15 minutes on screen without talking about men. It would seem that the same test could be applied to the theatre world.
With Fun Home, Allison Bechdel in all of her different representations has definite daddy issues. So, the likelihood is that Kron’s book probably wouldn’t pass Bechdel’s famous test.
Developed as a theatrical work at the Sundance Resort in 2012, Fun Home enjoyed its world premiere at the Public Theatre in New York and transferred to Broadway in very short order. In fact, the Public Theatre was about to capture lightning in a bottle twice in as many years with its next production, a piece by Lin-Manuel Miranda on founding father Alexander Hamilton that also transferred to Broadway after sellout performances there.
Southern Rep Theatre in association with the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) Stage Company is presenting the final days of this regional premiere over the course of the weekend. Directed by NOCCA faculty member Blake Coheley, it is smartly acted and features a dream cast of superb players, most of whom are Equity membership candidates or Actors’ Equity Association members.
Jefferson Turner acts as conductor of a small ensemble of players who bring Tesori’s charming and intimate music to life along with the small cast of characters who play in the round.
The title of Fun Home refers to the strange fact that the family mansion in which she was raised and which was lovingly restored by her perfectionist father, also served occasionally as a funeral home. One comedic number, “Come to the Fun Home,” highlights this as the Buchdel kids (Burkey along with Henry Morse as John and Christian Collins as Christian) produce their own impromptu commercial about the business.
“Our caskets are satin lined
And we got so many models
Guaranteed to blow your mind
You know our mourners
They like, they like, they like —
Like in all families, there’s never an opportunity for humor or pathos to be covered. These relationships within the family are handled with taste and delicacy by Kron. Medium Allison’s own sexuality is explored at college, freeing herself to exclaim that her dad could never understand how she feels because she is gay. Only later does she found out how wrong she is, that that the two of them have more in common than she ever suspected, especially after she learns of her father’s trysts with young men, some not yet considered legally able to make those choices.
Dowies has the task of filling a role that is full of dichotomy. As Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris fleshed out the work in the original production, Bruce Bechdel is both full of brashness and hubris as well as insecurity and uncertainty. Allison’s relationship with her mother is cold and distant, but the feelings she expresses for her father are far more rich and intimate.
As Helen Bechdel, Leslie Castay plays her role with absolute finesse. Her skills behind the piano were acquired just for this role and her commitment to playing the tightly wound mother and teacher is evident. Castay’s interactions with Burkey are most special because they are in real life mother and daughter.
The production numbers of “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue,” and “Raincoat of Love” depict much of the craziness of living in the Bechdel home and the fact that the family did act as a unit, despite of its dysfunctionality.
Burkey’s solo of “Ring of Keys” is especially important in setting the fact that she knows she is different from other girls and that she can recognize, respect and love the power behind a strong woman. Chrissy Bowen’s final scene in a car with her father “Telephone Wire” is filled with emotion and poignancy, as she wishes there were things that could have been said between of them.
In the end there are no answers, only memories. Bruce’s suicide comes at the end of a bi-polar episode as he spins out of control in “Edges of the World” and Castay’s warning for Allison to live her life without being co-dependant (“Days and Days”) remain to be considered at the end of the show like two perfect bookholders on a perfect shelf. Allison remains in the finale “Flying Away” in all three of her phases – Small, Medium and Adult – because she is a product of the house and the family.
This is an important work for many reasons. Southern Rep and artistic director Aimée Hayes need to be thanked over and over for having had the foresight to bring this work onto the boards here. This is a lovely, tender and sometimes surprising piece which is at its core all about family. It may not be an average family, but make no mistake about it: it is a family that loves one another.
Fun Home finishes its run this weekend with very limited seating. In person waitlisting for seats at NOCCA’S Nims Black Box Theater may be the only way to see the show, with final performances tomorrow, Saturday, Oct. 21 and Sunday, Oct. 22 at 3:00 p.m.