Theater Review: FUN HOME (Studio Theatre in D.C.)

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by Lisa Troshinsky on July 3, 2023

in Theater-D.C. / Maryland / Virginia


Fun Home, which opened yesterday at Studio Theatre, will likely touch even the most cynical of hearts. Deep but never sappy, it’s full of multi-level contradictions within its characters, themes, and plot. Under David Muse‘s sensitive, fluid direction, a cast of strong vocalists offer a painfully realistic struggle of having to live in the orbit of a closeted, disconnected and consistently conflicted father.

Writer Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori created this coming-of-age story, which opens with a hopeful, albeit tentative, beginning and a wretched end. Alison, the protagonist, is coming out of the closet at the same time her father’s fight to stay closeted ends in tragedy. Tales of gay suicides have been told far too often, but here the process of getting to that culmination is exceptional. As Tolstoy wrote in the first sentence of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Adante Carter, Andrea Prestinario, Rachel Pitcher, and Bobby Smith

Based on the 2006 graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, a self-declared lesbian cartoonist known for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, the musical is a memory play much like The Glass Menagerie. but it’s also a memoir. Set in her present day studio, 43-year-old Alison (Andrea Prestinario) is stationed behind her illustrator’s desk struggling to remember the details of her life so that she can digest and come to terms with the events and also turn them into art in the form of a graphic novel (“Caption: I leapt out of the closet. And four months later, my father killed himself by stepping in front of a truck”). From her adult vantage point, she witnesses herself during earlier stages.

Ten-year-old Small Alison (Quinn Titcomb) abhors wearing dresses and must navigate her father’s hypocritical desire to make her the perfect heterosexual lady, when her true desire is literally to fly away from the small-town Pennsylvania Victorian showplace and the family funeral home that provides the show’s sardonic title. In a rare invasion of joy, Alison and her two brothers John (Teddy Schechter) and Christian (August Scott McFeaters) play at making a Jackson Five-like commercial for the mortuary (“Come to the Fun Home”).

August Scott McFeaters, Quinn Titcomb, Teddy Schechter

Medium Alison (Maya Jacobson) is an Oberlin College student who is sexually blossoming as a lesbian. As another comedic bit to lighten the story’s heavy load, Alison — ecstatic after her first lesbian sexual experience with a woman named Joan (Thani Brant) — delightfully sings “I’m Changing My Major to Joan.”

Her father Bruce Bechdel (a haunting Bobby Smith) plays a prominent and perplexing role at both junctures. Bruce’s life revolves around denial, while his family, particularly Alison, searches for the truth. Small Alison craves his attention and he responds with sometimes strange, abstruse gestures. She writes in her diary that her father gave her a first glimpse of a dead body. Bruce mails Medium Alison oodles of heady books to her college, one being Earthly Paradise by the famously out bisexual author Colette. When Alison finally comes out of the closet, Bruce is torn. He is happy for her, yet regrets his own life, singing “It’s harder when you’re older to start a beginning.”

Thani Brant and Maya Jacobson

Bruce’s thoughtful sensitivity lets him pursue the finer things in life, such as restoring old houses, silver antiques, and fine linen. Yet it only takes a moment for his pent-up rage to lash out on Alison, insisting her cartoons aren’t real art, and his wife Helen (Rebecca Pitcher), who he abusively calls shrewish. While he has affairs with a variety of men, some underaged (Adante Carter in multiple roles), he still runs the household. During the song, “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue” the family belts out “He Wants … He Wants…He Wants / See how we polish and we shine? / We rearrange and realign / Everything is balanced and serene / Like chaos never happens if it’s never seen.” In the heartbreaking tune “Days and Days,” Pitcher’s Helen sings of how she knows Bruce has affairs yet she feels responsible.

Towards the end, Bruce tries to fix up a beaten down shambles of a house – a metaphor for his own life. Smith is especially poignant and sympathetic in “Edges of the World” when he bellows out: “Bad foundation / Twisting floorboards / Shoddy pipes / Gaping hole /
It’s a lot / It’s a lot to keep under control / But when the sunlight hits the parlor wall / At certain times of day I see how fine this house could be / I see it so damn clear! / What’s the matter? / Why am I standing here?”

Fun Home has many hinges: before and after, if or when, then and now, and, above all, three Alisons who are both for and against a less-than-one Bruce. Our sympathies get fought over (and over), which only tells you how much truth-telling is at stake here. Mr. Muse makes every moment matter, while Darren R. Cohen’s astounding musical direction triggers the novelistic texture of Kron’s supple lyrics and Tesori’s vaulting melodies. At the end of the day, the musical is about identity, and the search for identity, which involves our upbringing. Like it or not, parents have a lot to do with how we end up. That universal message echoes throughout this wholly original musical.

photos by Teresa Castracane

Fun Home
Studio Theatre | Mead Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC
ends on August 20, 2023
for tickets ($75-$125), visit Studio Theatre

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