For a man who worked hard to see that every room in his house was beautifully appointed, Bruce Bechdel spent quite a bit of time in the closet.
In the 2006 graphic novel Fun Home, Bechdel’s daughter Alison let him out – as well as a number of family secrets that swirled about her home in rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s
Last year, courtesy of composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist-lyricist Lisa Kron, Fun Home became a smash off-Broadway musical; this year, it’s a well-deserved Broadway sensation.
How does Bruce have the time to cavort with young men? He’s a husband, the father of three, a mortician, a high school teacher and a frequent scavenger of bric-a-brac for his home. But as we all know, when you really want something, you make time for it. As a result, Bruce includes young men among the items he scavenges.
So for his wife Helen, this is not a “fun home,” to use Bruce’s euphemism for their funeral home. She must pretend not to know what her husband does when leaves the house. Turning a blind eye is harder when he hires a handyman. What a wince of pain Judy Kuhn gives when suspiciously asking “Who is that?” when she sees the hunky Roy (the well-cast Joel Perez) in their backyard. As Helen reveals to Alison when the girl reaches adulthood, “I’m on edge every minute.”
That’s part of Fun Home’s greatness. It has sympathy for everyone affected by a sham marriage. While everyone sets out with the best intentions, nobody ultimately winds up happy.
Alison can understand the shame, the guilt and the uncertainty, for she too is homosexual. Even as a late Baby Boomer – a generation with far more tolerance than the so-called “Greatest Generation” that came before it — Alison has a hard time admitting that she’s gay. But imagine the conflicts that Bruce endured, for he came of age in the sexually primitive early ‘50s.
So Bruce set up the standard smokescreen of gay men; marry, have children, buy a nice home and work hard. Maybe then his real feelings would disappear.
Much easier said than done.
For all this, Fun Home emerges as quite a bit of fun, too. Musical theater guru Lehman Engel often stressed to his BMI Musical Theatre Workshop students that they should “find humor in dark places.” Kron and Tesori certainly have. The song that the three children sing about living among the dead in a funeral home is hilarious as well as endearing. It’s solidly delivered by Oscar Williams and Zell Steele Morrow as the two brothers and Sydney Lucas as Small Alison.
Small Alison, you ask? Yes, the musical gives us three Alisons for the price of one. Small Alison is Ms. Bechdel as a tween, Middle Alison is the teen and twenty-something and (just plain) Alison is the adult who looks back on her life. Throughout the intermissionless 100-minute show, Alison is seen writing her graphic novel that will memorialize her father as well as try to make sense of him.
That doesn’t give Beth Malone much to do as the show’s glorified narrator, but it does leave plenty for Small Alison and Middle Alison. Lucas is especially marvelous in “Ring of Keys,” in which the child sees her first mannish lesbian and is immediately attracted to her bearing and clothing. The song soars, and Lucas soars with it, establishing that being gay is embedded in some people from Day One.
As Middle Alison, Emily Skeggs gives one of the finest performances of the season. She’s completely charming as the timid country mouse who can only get as far as the outside door of the Oberlin’s Gay Union. While she’s hesitating, Joan (a staunch Roberta Colindrez) saunters up, blithely opens the door and walks in without a second’s hesitation. Alison admires that, and will soon become more interested in the young woman than she ever expected.
But where are the words Alison needs to get what she wants? Every one of us, gay or straight, can all relate to the nervousness that Skeggs beautifully conveys. We’ve all felt the confusion, desire and fear when approaching someone in whom we’re romantically interested, for we worry that we’ll be rebuffed, scorned or at the very least embarrassed for letting our feelings known. Skeggs also shows the agony when she says the wrong thing at the wrong time, which may not be as bad as saying the wrong thing at what would have been the right time. Watch her frustration as she tries to find the magic words that will propel her into Joan’s arms.
Once she does, Skeggs gets the show’s best song – which is really saying something, given how strong Tesori and Kron’s score is. “Changing My Major” is a joyous expression of what we all felt when we found the first real love of our life, when nothing else in the world mattered. Skeggs displays the validation of being worthy of love while celebrating the person who made it happen.
“Days and Days,” the song given to the always wondrous Kuhn, is just a whit behind. Here Helen assesses the life she’s made for herself, how time has passed and how little satisfaction it’s given her.
Kuhn reminds us of all the unhappy housewives-mothers whose bottom line was “If I leave, where can I going to with no job skills and kids?”
Tony-winner Michael Cerveris should get his sixth nomination for playing tortured, irascible Bruce. Cerveris admirably conveys a man who means well when helping Small Alison with her homework, but when she doesn’t follow his advice to the letter, he coarsely explodes. The guilt trip on which he sends her proves to be a very long one.
Note too the sharp grin on Cerveris’ face when Bruce looks into the mirror, likes what he sees and sings “I still might break a heart or two.” As it turns out, the hearts he’ll break are his own, his wife’s and Alison’s. (Presumably the other two Bechdel children don’t fare so well, either, but nothing is made of how they feel about the events.)
While the show scored mightily when it was downtown on a proscenium stage, it profits substantially from being in the aptly named Circle in the Square. We’re so much closer to the action that we actually feel as if we’re in the Bechdel home. The configuration also serves to give an inadvertent message about the circle of life; Alison will do better with her sexuality than her father did.
Fun Home reminds us of the tragic times when being thought “queer” was among a man’s biggest disgraces. To some, it still is, so the musical will serve as a cautionary tale to those living today in less-than-open-minded states.
And yet, Fun Home serves to remind us that times have indeed changed in many places. The show’s most reassuring moment comes early, when Middle Alison is struggling with her feelings. When she blurts out, “Please, God don’t make me a Lesbian!” the audience responds with a good-natured laugh – one that says “You have nothing to worry about. You’re going to be all right.” That indulgent laugh shows us how far we’ve come – and how much Bruce Bechdel could have used it in the ‘50s.