By: Shari Archinoff
Growing up is weird, isn’t it? When you’re a kid, going off to college seems so grown up and far away. Then suddenly you’re a real adult, looking back at your freshman year and cringing at your awkwardness and naiveté. Or you might look back at your shiny, happy childhood memories and see a darker truth behind them, and start to question everything. And if you’re a noted writer and illustrator like Alison Bechdel, you put it all in a graphic novel called Fun Home: A Family Tragicomedy, that gets adapted into a five-time Tony Award winning musical that’s part coming-of-age story and part family drama, with a bit of levity and lot of great music mixed in.
I recently saw Fun Home at the CAA Theatre here in Toronto, after having been a fan of the soundtrack since its release. It’s a tricky plot to spin into a musical: A young woman who grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, where her closeted father ran the local funeral home, grows up to be a lesbian cartoonist after her father commits suicide. That’s not a spoiler, by the way, they give you that information in the first song. The show is told from the perspective of Alison, a woman in her early 40s, combing back though her memories as she’s starting to write her book, trying to unravel her family’s mysteries and attempting to understand the decision her father made. By letting us know at the start about her father’s demise, the show’s writer Lisa Kron tackles a difficult subject by not reducing it to a shocking ending, but allowing us to look for clues alongside Alison and follow her on her journey.
During the course of the show, we meet Alison at three different periods of her life. Adult Alison, played by Laura Condlin, is actually far more than simply a “lesbian cartoonist”, as she puts it. She’s an LGBTQ and feminist icon (ever heard of the Bechdel test? It’s a film term people refer to when discussing the level of feminism in a movie, and originates from Alison’s long running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For). We don’t see that during the 100 minute runtime of the show, though. Here, she’s a woman, trying to understand her own life. College freshman Alison, played by Sarah Farb, is out on her own for the first time and is both terrified and exhilarated by her newfound independence and sexual awakening, which includes a fellow female student named Joan. The scene stealer of the show is Hannah Levinson, who conquered the task of playing Young Alison, a girl of around 9 or 10, who likes to goof around with her brothers while they’re supposed to be working at their family’s funeral home, (or as they call it, the fun home,) and doesn’t understand why her father insists she wears a dress to a party instead of jeans and a t-shirt. Together, all three actors portraying Alison were able to bring unique personality traits to the table, while still managing to create a cohesive character.
In a particularly complex role, Evan Buliung gave a nuanced performance as Alison’s dad Bruce, who seemed to be complex person himself. He was a man who could be at times fun and playful, arrogant and passive-aggressive, wise and insightful, and would switch between being loving or explosive at the drop of a hat. Evan Buliung managed to take all of these traits and still create a portrayal of a well-rounded, sympathetic human being. Acclaimed actress Cynthia Dale rounds out the main cast, giving life to Alison’s long suffering mother, a woman who set her own dreams aside to raise a family and is desperately trying to maintain the illusion of keeping it all together.
While Fun Home is very much the specific story of one woman’s life, there are so many themes that are universal and relatable to everyone: family and the ways we relate to them (and don’t); growing up and not understanding who you are; that first moment where you recognize yourself in someone else; starting to figure it all out and not wanting to be who you know you are; the feeling of freedom when you finally accept your true self; the moment when you first see your parents as actual humans with lives of their own and the ever present need to have them see you as you are. Fun Home is the story of Alison Bechdel’s life, but I think we can call see parts of ourselves in her.
Fun Home plays at the CAA Theatre until May 20, 2018. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit: https://www.mirvish.com/shows/fun-home.