There must be some other chances /
There’s a moment I’m forgetting /
Where you tell me you see me
--Alison, “Telephone Wire,” Fun Home
It can seem a little screwball at first—this Pennsylvania family with a perfect house and a demanding father, kids running around to clean up crayons and polish the silver, and a song-and-dance number performed by three kids on (and in and under) a casket. In fact, within the first few scenes of Trustus Theatre’s production of Fun Home, I wasn’t quite sure what kind of story I was stepping into.
Yet, as the production progressed, it became clear that these seemingly lighthearted and sometimes darkly humorous moments were just the first steps down a complex, moving narrative of memory, loss, and coming of age.
Based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, the Tony-award-winning musical of the same name was adapted and brought to the stage in collaboration with Bechdel in 2009 by Lisa Kron, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori, who composed the music. It opened on Broadway in 2015 and was hailed for being the first Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist.
Having read Bechdel’s Fun Home (as well as her popular comic series Dykes to Watch Out For and her second graphic memoir Are You My Mother?), I was aware of both the story of Fun Home as well as the politics surrounding it in South Carolina. In 2014, the South Carolina legislature cut funding for the College of Charleston when the university assigned Fun Home as part of its first-year reading project. The controversy resulted in months of protests, ongoing budget cuts, and rising fears regarding academic freedom among university programs and departments. (The university only had funding restored with the promise to use the money to teach the Constitution and other founding documents.)
Yet, while the controversy surrounding the memoir Fun Home grew out of its a portrayal of a young lesbian coming of age in the 1970s and 80s, at the heart of the story of both the book and the musical is Alison’s struggle to understand her father, Bruce, a controlling, emotionally abusive, closeted man who died suddenly when Alison was 19 (as we learn during the first few minutes of the production).
Directed by Chad Henderson, Trustus’s production of Fun Home brings us on a nonlinear journey through memory with adult Alison, played with a masterful mix of humor, pensiveness, and compassion by Robin Gottlieb. Accompanied by the skillful performances of an on-stage band (directed by Randy Moore) and with her narrative tied together by beautifully choreographed transitions, Gottlieb’s Alison invites us into the intimate spaces of her past where we meet her family, her first lesbian love interest, and, most notably, Alison’s younger selves, including the college-aged Medium Alison and the elementary-school-aged Small Alison.
In Trustus’s production, the most delightful moments of the story come through the performances of Small Alison and Medium Alison. As Small Alison, Clare Kerwin brims with a budding sense of self in songs like “Ring of Keys,” which details Alison’s initial recognition of an “old-school butch” in a small-town diner (“It's probably conceited to say / But I think we're alike in a certain way … / Do you feel my heart saying ‘hi’?”). And in practically every scene she appears in, Cassidy Spencer portrays Medium Alison with a comedic and endearing awkwardness, abounding with the nerves and excitement that come with coming of age—and coming out. (Most notable is Spencer’s performance of the song “Changing My Major,” in which she opines about her newfound love Joan, played with gentle confidence by LaTrell Brennan).
Yet, these lighthearted moments only serve to underscore the losses that adult Alison faces, as they are contrasted with escalating conflicts between the mercurial Bruce (deftly portrayed by Paul Kaufmann) and his wife Helen (whose strength and fragility are impressively captured by Marybeth Gorman), as well as his three kids (Clare Kerwin along with Christopher Hionis and Henry Melkomian, who play Small Alison’s brothers). Indeed, the most poignant moment of the musical emerges from this: While adult Alison acts as a sort of narrator of her own experiences throughout the production, she finally enters into one memory that leads to a heartbreaking duet (“Telephone Wire”) between Gottlieb and Kaufmann—and perhaps the most powerful performance of the whole production.
There is a sense of loss that pervades the musical—of a father’s image, of a family’s relationships. In the end, we sit with Alison in her joy and her grief, and we long with her, too—just one more moment, just one more—
It’s in that tension between memory and reality, adulthood and youth, longing and losing, that the impact of Fun Home is truly felt.
Alexis Stratton is a writer, editor, and film maker from Columbia, SC whose work has been published in a range of publications; they love bowties, social justice, and good art, and they think heaven must be a kind of library.
What: Fun Home
Where: Trustus Theatre, 520 Lady St. (www.trustus.org)
When: Thurs.-Sun. through April 14
Cost: $30 Thursdays and Sundays; $35 Fridays and Saturdays; $25 students (group discounts available)