Based on the 2006 best-selling graphic memoir of the same title by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home recreates Bechdel’s childhood and adolescent memories: how she loved drawing and despised dresses, how she came out in college, and how, a few months after revealing her sexuality to her parents, her father killed himself by jumping in front of a truck at age 43.
Written by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics), Fun Home begins in the present, as 43-year-old Alison (Amy Jo Jackson) grapples anew with her father’s death and closeted homosexuality, searching for answers by drawing cartoons. As she picks up her pen, other characters burst onto the stage—her father, Bruce (Todd Yard), and a younger, 8-year-old version of herself (played by bright-eyed Marissa Simeqi)—as real-life animations of her art.
The show is complex, weaving in and out of time with three differently aged Alisons—young, college-aged, and adult—playing side-by-side. As the show flips from scene to scene, we forget whether we are watching Alison’s memories or seeing her transformation of them onto the page. The actors’ performance is a complicated fusion of the two.
SpeakEasy’s production, directed by the company’s artistic director Paul Daigneault, navigates these switches flawlessly. By playing in the round, Daigneault lets the audience in on the characters’ secrets. We, like adult Alison, can peer over her younger self’s shoulders to peep at what she is drawing or writing. In one early scene we play the mirror, as Bruce peers into the darkened audience and adjusts his tie, regarding himself as “not too bad”—a small taste of the obsessive need to self-assess that his daughter takes after.
In many ways, Fun Home is about the struggle to remember and express personal experiences. Alison is always stopping the action to try to caption it. She often falls short, announcing “Caption…” and throwing her hands up. How to capture her father—at once a husband and funeral home director who enjoys restoring old homes, and a closeted English teacher who lusts after and picks up young, underage boys?
Where Jackson’s performance sometimes feels a bit tired—the repeated frustrations of the stuck memoirist—her younger counterparts shine. Simeqi’s performance as young Alison hits all the right notes—from attention-seeking, to playful, to curious and confused—and reaches its peak during “Ring of Keys,” her most demanding musical solo that describes the first time Alison saw a lesbian woman dressed not like other women, but as “an old-school butch.” Alison struggles, at first, to express what is so captivating about the woman. “I feel… I feel…” she stammers. When words fail, she opts for description, cataloging the woman’s “lace-up boots,” “short hair,” and “ring of keys.” In the end, what young Alison sees is a reflection of herself in the woman, her first moment of self-identification with someone other than her father.
The more self-conscious, college-aged “Al” is not so keen to align herself with other lesbians until she falls hard for a classmate, Joan (played by a funny, confident Desiré Graham). Ellie van Amerongen plays Al with a superbly intentional awkwardness that reeks of the indecisiveness, excitability, and independence of college. Her frustrations and joys are the most clearly rendered of the three Alisons.
Yard, as Bruce Bechdel, has perhaps the most difficult character to portray. He must shift from cheerful to demanding, vain to vulnerable, persnickety to lustful in a beat. When he, like his daughter, fails to capture what he’s feeling, he leans on description, describing the house he is fixing up—how the light shines through the window, how he will make it look wonderful. Even if we don’t believe him, his daughter does. She works tirelessly for her art as he did for his house, and is left with it in the end.
The set, designed by Cristina Todesco, is scant at first—some decorative gable trim hangs from the ceiling, a writing desk sits upstage, books loom on the back wall and, on the floor, several white rectangles outlined with chalk surround a central rug, dividing the stage into small sections. They look like blank cartoon cells, a nod to the musical’s source.
In the end, the empty rectangles are all that remain. Alison goes back to the drawing board to piece it all together, and we are left to fill in the blank cells in with our own memory of the show: its spunky dance numbers, its joyful ballads, its complicated solos. Fun Home is about memory, and SpeakEasy’s graceful production is one that will linger with anyone who sees it, long after it closes its doors on Nov 11.
FUN HOME. THROUGH 11.24 AT ROBERTS STUDIO THEATRE, STANFORD CALDERWOOD PAVILION, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON, MA. SPEAKEASYSTAGE.COM