Plays containing lesbian leads are sadly—at least in this lesbian’s opinion—few and far between. Broadway musicals containing a lead character who is lesbian are even scarcer. In fact, prior to “Fun Home,” they didn’t exist. That is what makes this play a much-needed entry into theatre’s mainstream. “Fun Home” is based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name with music and lyrics by Jeanine Tesori and book by Lisa Kron. Bechdel’s work and philosophy have become something of a benchmark in theatre—literally. The Bechdel Test has been adopted by numerous theatres around the world in an effort to give greater voice and visibility to women on stage while deconstructing more traditional androcentric paradigms that have dominated the conventional dramatic status quo for centuries.
…fantastic…spellbinds…a uniquely satisfying experience…mesmerizing…
“Fun Home” is an autobiographical story where the musical numbers help theatrically reimagine one girl-come-woman’s struggle to be seen for who she is. That seems the overarching theme wrapped in a question to which Alison—both the child and the adult version—never does receive an answer: “Do you see me?” Meanwhile, her father also struggles with his own invisibility in some very surprising and unexpected ways. This is a play that largely centers on what happens when an otherwise typical father-daughter relationship gets blindsided by bombshells concerning sexuality and sexual identity—the short-term explosions are only the beginning. At Studio Theatre’s concession stand they were selling packets of tissue with a sign that read “you will need these.” After seeing the performance. I would have to agree. The heartrending gut punches just keep on coming.
Growing up as the daughter of a funeral home director, Alison experiences a less-than-normal childhood. Sure, there were Saturday morning cartoons and impromptu dance numbers with her two brothers, but there were also dead bodies, fiercely bickering parents and pop-in visits from the historical society as theirs was a landmark home. Small Alison (played to perfection by young vocal powerhouse Quinn Titcomb) is a weirdly wry kid with the kind of guarded perspective that a child that age just shouldn’t have. Yet, this perspective is likely part of the reason why Bechdel went on to become such a highly successful cartoonist and women’s rights advocate.
Studio’s production does a fantastic job of creating the kinds of uncomfortable moments that this story presents in a way that spellbinds audiences without compromising that escape-from-life joie de vivre that Broadway musicals generally bring to the table. The musical numbers—even given some of the heavier lyrics—are what make “Fun Home” a uniquely satisfying experience, particularly the titular song, “Come to the Fun Home” and “Changing My Major,” delightfully performed by Maya Jacobson as college-age Alison.
The entire story is told from the perspective of adult Alison, so yes, that means there are three Alisons at any given time. It’s almost as if we are given front-row seats to the workings of Alison’s ridiculously artistic brain as she maps out the key moments of a young life lived in the shadow of a conflicted father, a put-upon mother, and her own looming lesbianism that represents the big scary question mark at the end of the sentence, “when I came out to my parents, they…?”
The cast of this production does a marvelous job of serving as the chorus part of Alison’s brain, providing the memories, the raw emotionality, and the mouth-agape moments of devastation that “Fun Home” delivers. While all ensemble members certainly show up big time, a couple of notable performances really help take this one up a notch. As Alison, Andrea Prestinario gives us the many sides of the adult Bechdel, portraying the cartoonist’s brand of cynical humor while clinging to a child-like dependence on predictability that you just know is going to blow up in her face. Then there is Bobby Smith’s Bruce Bechdel—an exceedingly superb study in what closeting looked like for those who came of age before Stonewall, before marches and parades existed and before the word Pride came to embody the spirit of a movement. His pain and angst are palpable. The way Smith presents the tug-of-war inhabiting his soul is absolutely heartbreaking.
Under the direction of Studio Theatre’s artistic director David Muse, this Tony Award-winning Tesori-Kron musical deftly and oh-so entertainingly traverses a tightrope between a family-falling-apart drama and a poignant musical that has the power to evoke tears and laughter in one fell swoop. Muse doesn’t allow the actors to luxuriate for too long in a phrase or beat. Rather, mimicking the oft frenetic pace of Bechdel’s mind, the cast is constantly moving, constantly interacting, and always thinking about what could be coming through the door of that “Fun Home” next. It’s quite mesmerizing to watch at points.
There is brilliance inherent in Debra Booth’s set design. As is sometimes the case in Bechdel’s drawings, nothing is necessarily what it seems. Cleverly giving us the inside of Alison’s studio and the interior of the Bechdel’s home, among at least one other completely surprising backdrop, Booth tells a very compelling story with the scenery. Helping to flesh out this story are the lighting by Brian Tovar, sound design by Gordon Nimmo-Smith, and music by Darren R. Cohen.
The best way I can think to describe Studio Theatre’s “Fun Home” is a labyrinthine look at a young woman’s struggle to be seen for who she truly is, complete with song and dance and the inevitable moments of somberness that sadly characterize what it means to grow up as “different” in a world where the terms of normalcy have been established to ensure that “different” becomes a dirty word.
Running time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Includes verbal abuse, depictions of homophobia, a death by suicide, and allusions to sexual contact between an adult and teenagers.
“Fun Home” runs through August 20, 2023 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. For more information and tickets, call the Box Office at 202.332.3300 or go online. Masks are recommended.