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Review: “Fun Home” reaches deep into family history

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Review: “Fun Home” reaches deep into family history

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By Juan Ramirez

We’ll never truly know our parents; our perception of them so complicated by our relationships, dynamics and memories. Even less, we’ll never truly know others’ parents, and what happens behind closed doors at another’s house is just about anyone’s guess. “Fun Home,” the 2013 musical based on acclaimed cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, sees a grown daughter probing into her childhood for clues as to why her father committed suicide shortly after her coming out. A tragic experience gives way to a flood of memories and sets the stage for a tender look at family, growing up and the ways those two intersect to create who we become.

Beautifully mounted by SpeakEasy Stage Company in a production that opened last Sunday, this “Fun Home” takes its own crack at the Bechdel family doors. Though Lisa Kron’s heartfelt book and lyrics remain untouched, and Jeanine Tesori’s music remains much the same (though re-orchestrated with a down-home, indie rock feel), the distance between this and the original Off-Broadway production allows it the freedom to explore this family through an outsider’s vantage point – one not tied so closely to its source.

Bookended by an adult Alison (played by Amy Jo Jackson) sketching together scenes from her life, the story weaves through time as she struggles to find meaning in the connections between her sexual awakening and life under her demanding, temperamental and closeted father’s roof. Trained to notice details for her cartoons, Alison pores over every interaction, any chance recollection of her father – what was he doing those Fleet Week nights on that New York trip so long ago? – that might bridge that unknowable gap; their invisible link of queerness promising the more profound connection she craves.

She conjures up memories of her college self (Ellie Van Amerongen, billed as “Medium Alison”) reading the latently queer literature the Bechdel family patriarch, Bruce (a terrific Todd Yard), would suggest for her. Memories of her father – a funeral home director, high school English teacher and house restorer – angrily reprimanding her childhood self (Marissa Simeqi, “Small Alison”) for preferring trousers to dresses and crewcuts to barrettes. Memories she can only see through the prism of time, frustratingly intangible and unchanging.

For the audience, these memories are as precious and heartfelt as they are intoxicating to see laid out on Cristina Todesco’s set. Staged in the round and framed within rustic gables barely above the audience’s heads, we are kept tightly within Alison’s emotional realm, with cartoon-like edges etched on the floor and music coming from the visible orchestra on the opposite end of the theater.

I would be remiss here not to mention Laura Marie Duncan’s heartbreaking performance as Helen: a would-be Broadway, forced-to-be amateur actress now playing the role of the put-upon wife in a performative marriage. Though her presence throughout feels slightly diminished from the original production, Duncan imbues her character with a raw earthiness that suggests a bold woman fraught with emotion, hanging on to a barely-retained passivity as a means of familial survival. Her closing solo, “Days and Days,” in which she digs into her own past as a subtle warning to Allison, is easily the standout number in a production rich with gorgeous performances.

Duncan’s Helen is more visibly frustrated with her daughter’s sexuality than in the original production, just as Yard’s Bruce is more disturbingly forthcoming in his interactions with the local boys. Stripped of their Broadway haloes, this talented cast of actors is encouraged by Paul Daigneault’s astute direction to explore their characters’ moral shades where the original production glossed over them as a child would with their own parents’.

If I’ve mentioned the original (off-)Broadway runs one too many times, it is only because this production makes a fantastic case for the work itself as a great musical worth revisiting; the Tony Awards it picked up for Best Musical, Book and Score were no accidents. This is a moving portrait of lives lived and lost – universal in its exploration of family hardships and hauntingly personal in the way the best dramatic works can be. Even then, “Fun Home” is not a somber affair; it is full of love and laughter; tears sweetened with joy and made bitter with sadness. In that, it reaches far beyond the pain into a most sublime sense of acceptance.

SpeakEasy Stage’s “Fun Home” is in performance at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA through Nov. 24.

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