Panache Theatrical Productions brings the Wilmington premiere of “Fun Home” to the Ruth and Bucky Stein Studio Theatre at Thalian Hall. Based on the graphic-novel memoir of Alison Bechdel, “Fun Home” was adapted into a musical with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori in 2013.
The title of the show comes from the family term the Bechdels use to refer to the funeral home their father, Bruce, owns. Alison Bechdel, as an adult, is the creator of the long-running (and incredibly amazing) syndicated comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” So it is no surprise, when she turned her eye toward a memoir, she would explore the territory in graphic-novel form, wherein she became the protagonist Mo. The result is “Fun Home,” a graphic memoir that looks at the questions surrounding Alison’s childhood in a funeral home with her two brothers, mother and her father, all of whom struggled to reconcile his sexuality with societal expectations.
In spite of all the potential for the quirkiness of growing up in a funeral home, theirs is actually a very regimented existence. Bruce (Jamey Stone) is obsessive about his house, which he has restored and furnished perfectly. In “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue,” we meet Alison’s siblings John (Gabriel Homick) and Christian (Jakob Gruntfest) and her mother, Helen (Kathy Enlow). Enlow’s Helen is a stepford wife: The house is immaculate, the children are clean and well-dressed, and she has the perfect smile plastered on her face to present to the world. But her eyes are sending distressed signals. You don’t want to look too closely. She doesn’t want you to, either.
Or does she?
The kids are kids: rambunctious, excited, eager, and just a bit on the wild and distracted side. Though they hold in check (mostly) for the visit by the historical society, we get to see it in full force when they record their “commercial” (take number 7 million billion) for the family funeral home, “Come to the Fun Home.”
It’s a rollicking disco number, and the kids sell it with all their might. Parts of the show feel kind of dreamy; some are dark and more have the titillating euphoria of young love and self-discovery. But this number is pure fun. The audience loves it, the performers love it, and the characters off awesome dance moves to accompany surprising and gifted voices. It is youthful abandon and childhood joy, channeled into a perfect musical package.
Adult Alison, played by Cathy Street, watches all memories unfold before her as she draws panels for her memoir. Scenic-designer Benedict R. Fancy utilizes the intimate space of the studio theatre to enhance the sense that family memories overwhelm in both the best and the worst ways. Street is onstage the entire time—mostly on a raised platform, upstage right, following the action—and she is completely in the moment, listening to and reacting to each of the characters constantly, including the two incarnations of her younger self.
Bay Allebach portrays Alison circa age 10, and Rebekah Carmichael gives us Alison in her early college years—specifically, the Alison who discovers Joan (Grace Carlyle Berry), her first girlfriend. With the song “Changing My Major,” we see the euphoria of the morning after her first night with Joan—and the decision to change her major from “Joan” to “Sex with Joan.” Clearly, it is the most exciting and wonderful thing that has ever happened to her. We’ve all been there. How could anyone possibly expect her to do anything else when doing the all-important and all-consuming work of making love with the most amazing person ranks top priority? Homework? Classes? What? How could any of that be as important or interesting as this new discovery?
Carmichael has a beautiful voice, but she doesn’t rest on it to sell the song or the character. She really gets the absurd and ironic undertones of the song and hits the self-referential comedic notes. For the transition between Alison as a child and Alison as an adult, she is perfectly cast, lost in the fog of early-life questions, and just enough shyness to make the very introspective and quiet adult cartoonist she becomes believable.
What Bechdel is really exploring is not herself but rather her parents. Slowly, very slowly, she teases out confusion and secrets surrounding her family life growing up. Who were these people? As children we see our parents as extensions of ourselves. As adults we have to learn to see them as individuals who had lives, loves, desires, fears, hopes, and disappointments before family.
Jamey Stone’s rendition of Bruce is probably the best work I’ve seen him do on stage. He gives us a man who wants to compartmentalize all aspects of his life … perfectly. Everything should fit into perfect little boxes. It is endlessly baffling and frustrating that everyone else didn’t get the memo. He is right, they are wrong—especially his long suffering wife.
The sly, not quite creepy, but excited grin he gets when picking up men (all of whom are played by Michael Pipicella), contrasts against the distant and distracted family man trying to keep everything in order and ship-shape. He battles with Alison over the barrette and party dress, which are supposed to make her look and consequently be more feminine. Neither she nor we can tell if he understands which battle he is really fighting or if he will always lose. It is what makes Stone’s performance work: He doesn’t know if he is winning or losing, moment to moment, but he keeps fighting to make things fit and stay in place so everything will be as it should be. He just doesn’t know.
Then there is the other half of the battle: Helen. Married in the 1950s to a handsome young soldier from a solid family, how was she supposed to know or understand the bargain she made? That is what she demands to know in “Days and Days”—the hymn to her lost life filled with bargained-away pieces of herself in exchange for any pretense of normalcy she could muster for her children. Chances are theatre-goers have seen Enlow on stage in the last couple of years—but not like this. She has a stunning voice and powerful craft as an actress. “Fun Home provides the first real chance to see her show off what she can do—and it is long overdue.
Dear gods! It is almost the perfect metaphor for the character she plays. Where the hell have you been hiding that light: under a bushel? Once the show gets up to her big song, her frustration, her admission, her demand to know what has happened to her life, she has all these qualities, all these pieces. We have been watching her lay groundwork for the previous hour in order to see it, too. But she doesn’t dwell in melodrama. I believed every bit and inch of her wide-ranged emotions. Why wasn’t she enough for her husband? Why wasn’t her family? Why couldn’t he tell her the truth? Why had he tricked her into this situation? Why was she always going to be second in his life? His needs? His wants?
It could be so easy to scream every line, have the world’s biggest tantrum and just melt down, but Enlow makes it more powerful with a controlled discussion that ends with her weeping. It would take a lot out of any actress to be the other half of the conversation. Carmichael and Street share the responsibility together to give two poles of unfolding revelation: of the moment and in hindsight. Director Michael Lauricella really uses the moment to visually drive home the narrative.
Cathy Street as the adult Alison only really gets two good solos in the show—which seems like a waste of a beautiful singing voice. She makes both songs heartbreaking, especially for anyone reflecting on a lost loved one and unfinished business with them. Bechdel is an introvert, so the character isn’t going to push to the front and demand the spotlight. Perhaps the best compliment I can give Street (and she deserves so many) is she brought Mo to life for me exactly as I always have heard her voice in my head, and seen her walk and move in my mind’s eye. She has a very difficult job as a narrator who uses visual art in a stage musical, but she makes it work with Bechdel’s interior journey becoming accessible to everyone.
“Fun Home” is such a fascinating show. It manages to explore family life without veering into either schmaltz or finger-pointing, which is surprising and refreshing. Every performance is top-notch and taken as a whole for a truly memorable and powerful night of theatre.