GHENT, N.Y. – The past is very much the present in “Fun Home,” Lisa Korn (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori’s (music) remarkable stage adaptation of graphic novelist/cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s memoir about growing up and coming out in a small town in Pennsylvania.
Bechdel’s “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” was published in 2006 when Bechdel was 46. The book is a bold, uncompromising, wickedly funny at times, search for perspective and closure on her relationship with her assertive, complex, closeted father; her own sexuality; and her father’s suicide, only four months after she came out to her parents during her freshman year at Oberlin College.
“I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who and what and why and when, until now gives way to then,” adult Alison (Helen Annely) sings in a duet, with her father Bruce (Jeffrey Jene), in the uneven, hardworking production “Fun Home” is being given at Ghent Playhouse.
“Fun Home” is a memory play whose narrative unfolds as a series of remembrances triggered by the cartoons created by adult Alison in her studio as the younger versions of herself — Small Alison (Rosalyn Annely) and Medium Alison (Noah Hamm) — play out various episodes from Alison’s past that, in aggregate, find place and being in Alison’s present. The three Alisons don’t appear together in any one scene until the musical’s deeply affecting final number, “Flying Away,” which Hamm and the Annelys (mother Helen and daughter Rosalyn) perform with style, grace and a spirit that is life affirming without being mawkish or oversold.
“My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town [Beech Creek],” Alison sings at one point. “Ane he was gay/And I was gay./And he killed himself./And I … became a lesbian cartoonist.”
Bechdel grew up as one of three children — she had two brothers, John (Brayden Huneau) and Christian (Ely Loskowitz) — of Helen (Amy Fiebke) and Bruce Bechdel. Her mother was an actress and a teacher. Her father taught high school English and ran the family business, Bechdel Funeral Home – called “Fun Home” by the family members. He also had a passion for historic restoration; for perfection; for the ways things should be done, need to be done.
“Sure, cartoons are fun,” he tells Small Alison when she shows him some of her cartoon work, “but I’m showing you here how to do something substantial and beautiful.” To become a real artist, he says, means having to learn the craft. “You have to study the rules.”
To anyone looking at Bruce from the outside, he lives a rule-bound life within the limits of the small circle that is his world. But he is a tormented soul. His wife, Helen, is the keeper of the truth about her husband’s compulsive, almost to the point of addictive, risk-taking need to be with other men; a secret she’s held through all the 20 years or so of their marriage.
Kron and Tesori have brought Bechdel’s novel to the stage with insight, understanding, compassion, wit and a score that is fully at one with the storytelling.
It’s a tough, ambitious, gutsy undertaking that, under the joint direction of Michael McDermott and Michael C. Mensching — whose wife, Joan, is the show’s skillful music director — for all its determination and commitment, moves in fits and starts. The performance feels longer than its intermissionless 110 minutes; never quite gathering on the whole the emotional momentum it achieves in some of its individual scenes.
McDermott and Mensching’s production is at its most satisfying and fulfilling when it is in the hands of any of the soaring, thoroughly engaging Alisons — from Rosalyn Annely’s spirited, life embracing Small Alison to Helen Annely’s reflective, wry Alison and especially Noah Hamm’s poignant and affecting Medium Alison. Hamm has tendency to overemphasize on occasion but, on the whole, this is a finely tuned performance that sees Medium Alison in all her uncertainty, vulnerability, curiosity and courage. Hamm’s treatment of Medium Alison’s “Changing My Major” is filled with ebullience and the buoyancy of experiencing love at its fullest as she connects with her first love at college, a classmate named Joan (a credible Siobhan Shea).
Fiebke has a lovely singing voice and she knows her way around a stage. But she portrays Helen with little more than a sorrowful demeanor. Anger, helplessness, resentment; her sense of duty and obligation roil within her and finally come out in her moving solo, “Days and Days.” But for all of Fiebke’s effort the song is little more than a one-dimensional litany of woe.
Even more striking, perhaps, are the limits of Jene’s skills in portraying Bruce, a hugely complicated figure who is his own worst enemy; who can’t get out of his own way.
Bruce’s “Edges of the World” is his anguished statement of the desperate place to which he has come in life.
"But the edges of the world that held me up have gone away/and I’m falling into nothingness …," he sings in what, for all intents and purposes, is his suicide note to himself near the end of “Fun Home.” “Who am I now? Where do I go?/I can’t go back/I can’t find my way through …"
Jene delivers all this with a sense of torment and self-directed anger. To his credit, Jene gives the moment everything he has. Jene strikes the right emotional attitude which is consistent with a performance throughout that seems more concerned with checking all the right emotional boxes but without the firm, authentic, substantive foundation that makes Bruce the formidable presence in Alison’s life that he is meant to be.