By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
As that snappy Russian Leo Tolstoy once put it: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” If there’s even the slightest doubt in your mind that such a thing is true, Alison Bechdel is on hand with the story of a family whose unhappiness is unlike any other’s. And she should know – it’s her family’s story after all.
Bechdel first made her mark as a cartoonist in the 80’s with her long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For – though certainly serious and thought provoking, DTWOF was, fundamentally, a comedic look as lesbian life and liberation. In no way did it prepare anyone for the 2006 publication of Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. This graphic novel about her childhood became an international success and is considered one of the primary works in queer literature.
Bechdel grew up in a widening-of-the-road town called Beech Creek, just outside Lock Haven, PA. Her father, Bruce, was a fifth generation mortician and the family lived in the funeral home. (Which they called the “Fun Home.”) Bruce and his wife Helen were school teachers as well. But Bruce’s passion was obsessively restoring antiques, furniture and houses. He was also a rage-aholic given to terrifying fits of temper and a control freak who kept the whole family (Alison had two brothers) in a state of emotional chaos.
But what’s a family without lots of secrets? Fun Home was Bechdel’s story of coming to terms with her sexuality – in college she came out to herself as a lesbian and then told her parents. At which point she learned that Bruce had been a closeted gay man his whole life and had affairs with men throughout his marriage.
A few months after all those revelations Bruce, standing on the side of the road, was killed by a passing truck – and a guilt-racked Bechdel believes it was suicide.
Take that comrade Tolstoy!
Even more remarkable is that in 2012 Fun Home was turned into a musical! Lisa Kron, the writer of the highly regarded off-Broadway shows 2.5 Minute Ride and Well, adapted the book for the stage and provided the lyrics to songs by Jeanine Tesori, composer of the breathtaking musicals Caroline, or Change and Violet. Everybody won a shitload of awards … including the Best Musical Tony and a Pulitzer nomination.
And now Front Porch Theatricals presents the regional premiere in a glorious, heart-stopping production. Bechdel, Kron and Tesori have created an evening of ineffable beauty, painfully sad but somehow uplifting as well. There are very few times in this Spencer Whale direction production that those moments of aching beauty aren’t brought to stunning theatrical life.
In the show, Alison is played by three actresses of different ages. Drew Leigh Williams is the grown-up Alison looking back on her life struggling to find sense and pattern. Williams sings with a voice of pure gold and can play the love, guilt, anger and sadness all bubbling inside Alison with enormous force … and all at the same time.
Nuala Cleary is “Medium Alison”; this is the college-aged heroine and Cleary is sheer joy as Alison tenuously begins to explore her sexuality and falls in love with fellow student Joan – here played with funny wisdom and a huge heart by Essence Stiggers.
Livia Rocco is “Small Alison,” the childhood girl living inside an emotional hurricane she can’t understand. The character has a song, “Ring of Keys,” where she sees a stereotypically butch female UPS driver making a delivery and in her mind somehow knows that she and the driver are part of the same, hidden world. The song is heart-piercing and Rocco, who I’m guessing is about 10 years old, turns in a performance which, I think, must be a highlight of my 30 years in the reviewing biz. How such a little girl can has such enormous impact is jaw dropping.
Rocco is joined by Eamonn McElfresh and Daniel Frontz playing the brothers and have the show’s most joyous moment where they stage a made-up television commercial “Come to the Fun Home.” They absolutely go to town and it’s a huge crowd pleaser.
Daniel Krell has the near impossible role of Bruce Bechdel – by design the character is relentlessly unlikable and ultimately unknowable. It’s only an actor of Krell’s skill who could tackle such a character and make him compelling throughout. His number with Williams “Telephone Wires” is almost unbearably painful and his final song “Edges of the World” is a gut wrenching experience of self-laceration.
The role of Helen is largely a cipher, though Cynthia Dougherty exposes sad wonder and deadening acceptance in “Days and Days.” And Tristan A. Hernandez snakes through the production playing many of Bruce’s tricks.
Music director Deana Muro leads an enormously impressive music ensemble and Joe Jackson’s choreography helps define time and place.
Front Porch Theatricals, yet again, scores a theatrical triumph.
Fun Home continues through August 25. New Hazlett Theater, North Side. www.frontporchpgh.com