An unorthodox coming of age tale told from the perspective of three different ages was portrayed elegantly at the Playhouse stage inside the Overture Center.
“Fun Home” is adapted from the best-selling graphic memoir of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel. The daughter of a high school English teacher who ran the family funeral home business from a small town in Pennsylvania shared her dark yet humorous life story through the musical theatre production.
The main focus of the play was less about Bechdel’s dysfunctional family and more about the relationship she shared with her father, Bruce. The play begins with Tony Award-winner Karen Olivo depicting an adult Alison who delivers a monologue about how she is a 40-something lesbian drawing cartoons, raised by questionable parenting.
We’re then introduced to Small Alison, played by the exceptionally talented Chantae Miller. Miller depicts the childhood version of Alison, where we find how exactly Bruce (Matt Daniels) and Alison’s mother Helen (Clare Arena Haden) raised their daughter. Although neither is blatantly cruel to Small Alison or her two brothers — Christian (Tryg Gundersen) and John (Donovan Lonsdale) — the family relationships are strained by the secrets kept from Alison and Helen regarding his own sexuality.
After Small Alison and her brothers perform a Jackson 5 parody of a funeral home commercial, “Come to the Fun Home,” the morbid humor turns to show exactly what Bruce was like. Helen frantically orders the kids to clean the house to appease Bruce, who is showing the home to a historian. It becomes clear where Bruce’s priorities lie in comparison to the rest of his own family.
The setting then focuses on Oberlin College student and questioning lesbian, Medium Alison (Rachael Zientek). Medium Alison befriends a more confident lesbian student in Joan (Solana Ramirez-Garcia) who helps Alison with the anxiety of questioning her sexuality. Joan and Medium Alison eventually have sex, followed by a hilarious number “Changing My Major” where Zientek belts “I’m changing my major, to having sex with Joan!”
Medium Alison tells Joan her father sends her books to read. Joan comically quips it’s strange of Bruce to do so, considering they already have schoolwork. She hints to Medium Alison — now more accepting of her sexuality —that the books Bruce is sending her may be a sign he knows she is a lesbian. Medium Alison proceeds to draft a coming out letter and sends it back home.
Turning back to the funeral home, while Medium Alison is off at Oberlin, Bruce has invited the babysitter, a young man by the name of Roy (Andy White) to do work around the yard. Roy gets seduced by Bruce while Helen has her back to the two of them, playing the piano. This signaled Helen becoming used to Bruce’s affairs with other men, and her playing with the piano was a means of ignoring the situation.
As Olivo’s Alison begins to make connections with her coming out and the quickly revealed suicide of her father, the focus moves back to Small Alison, who is showing her father homework she will be presenting to her class. The homework is a map of all the places her family has lived. Bruce, however, urges his daughter not to draw a cartoon but to draw in a more conventional way. He begins to reveal his volatile temperament and urgent importance he places on conforming to societal expectations.
Medium Alison, now in a committed relationship with Joan, is enraged that neither of her parents replied to her letter. She calls home and hears her father was surprisingly accepting. When Bruce hands the phone to Helen, Medium Alison receives the plot twist, her father’s sexual affairs with men and boys, some underage.
After another cutscene of Bruce seducing another young boy he picked up on the side of the road, Small Alison remains the focus, while she remains focused watching television. Bruce storms into the room to turn off The Partridge Family, before admitting he is seeing a psychiatrist. Small Alison can’t get Bruce to explain why he has to go out of town, until Adult Alison reveals Bruce got caught having relations with another underage boy. Helen tries comforting Small Alison without selling the truth, only to face her husband in a shouting match. The parents fighting becomes a small Small Alison’s fantasy of a happy family on television when the entire cast comes together on stage for “Raincoat of Love.”
Later, Adult Alison reminisces about a time Bruce took her, John and Christian for a trip. After getting settled in sleeping bags in the hotel room, Small Alison wakes up to find her father trying to sneak out. He lies to his daughter, telling Small Alison he’s only going to get a newspaper. This tops off the overwhelming evidence that Bruce was a gay man torn between his longing to conform and his sexual desires.
The play ends with Bruce committing to restore an abandoned house nearby the funeral home. His commitment to the home becomes a metaphor for his own desperate urge to create himself as he wishes to be.
The overall theme of reminiscing about the past, how we try to communicate the madness of our personal lives to others and creating a happy life for ourselves come together seamlessly in the edgy musical. Olivo may be the most known for her voice from the cast, but after the powerful performance, Zientek may have Broadway in her future. Directed by Jennifer Uphoff Gray, “Fun Home,” is a must-see for anyone, still exploring the world of adulthood.