Recollections of our parents have everything to do with where we are in our lives. As a parent myself of three girls, ages 12, 10 and five, the experiences of my wife and I run the gamut of emotions. And in these moments where it feels like my oldest daughter will never leave the all-consuming, self-absorbed world of Tweenville, which often feels like a never-ending battle over the cell phone, I wonder what my daughter will say about my wife and I and our parenting when she is a full-fledged adult.
That is why the ending of the spectacular production of “Fun Home” resonated with me so deeply and so weeply. No worries, I will not spoil this production. But I will say that everything about this show, which is deceptively grand but warmly intimate all at the same time, is wonderful.
San Francisco’s Curran Theatre, a space which really cemented my status as a theatre guy in the early 1990’s with “Les Miserables” and then “Phantom of the Opera,” has had a major facelift, yet still maintains the charm of the old building’s foundation. Gone are the space helmet-like urinals and the closet-sized lobby. In its place is now state of the art everything and an expansive lobby which jets beautifully to the venerable seating area that possesses such succulent sightlines.
The Tony Award winning “Fun Home,” based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, moves at a great pace through 90 uninterrupted minutes. It explores the life of Bechdel and the evolution of her 2006 graphic novel autobiography with three versions of her – Small Alison, played beautifully by Alessandra Baldacchino, medium Alison featuring a marquee performance with dazzling maturity by Abby Corrigan, and the adult version who gives us the window into her world, portrayed by Broadway star Alison Shindle.
Small Alison gives slight hints about her sexuality as a young girl. She runs around with her brothers wearing a dumpy sweatshirt and jeans. Always jeans. An attempt to strap a dress on her goes predictably poorly. Girls wear dresses to parties, says her dad Bruce (a powerhouse performance by Robert Petkoff). If that’s true, why is dad wearing a non-manly pink shirt, asks Small Alison. There are hints that dad understands Alison in ways much deeper than anyone else. After all, it is Alison that dad invites into the embalming room of their family funeral home when he needs a pair of scissors. She is confused by it all – was there a greater meaning to this gesture? Or did he just need the scissors?
There’s certainly more. He passes books to Medium Alison by the French author Colette, a woman who was married yet spent much of her time in lesbian relationships. This certainly piques the curiosity of Alison’s new friend Joan (a delightful Karen Eilbacher), a leader of the Gay Union at Oberlin College and the object of Alison’s first exploration of true, same sex love.
While Alison’s awakening is met with hilarity in the wistful ditty “Changing My Major,” Bruce is dealing with bigger problems, most notably giving one of his young male students in his high school English class a beer, an incident that means regular visits to a psychiatrist, because he is “bad.” Incidents like these; along with another “friend” who comes to watch the kids and plant trees is overwhelming to Bruce’s wife Helen (a deeply empathetic turn by Susan Moniz), but for her own reasons, she stays.
Bruce, in the hands of Petkoff, does everything to keep it together, but his temptations dominate every movement he makes. He sneaks out of his borrowed Greenwich Village apartment while his kids sleep on the floor in sleeping bags, saying only to Small Alison that he has to get a paper. But his ill-fitting, unbuttoned silk shirt says he has other plans.
The score from Tesori and the book and lyrics by Kron have such subtlety and poignancy, but most importantly, these are characters that allow the audience to connect to them with great empathy. These are families we might have known and families we might have been. It is the flaws of Bruce, suffering within his own good intentions that make him so very human. And while there are three Alisons to choose from, it is small Alison that reminds us how we cope with what is overwhelming – we use our imaginations.
While Helen is beaten down by the end of the show, with her beautiful number “Days and Days,” and Bruce’s ballad that shows a man unraveling in “Telephone Wire,” it is the pure innocence and discovery of Baldacchino as she sings “Ring of Keys” that stops the show in its tracks. It is a song loaded with humor and warmth, a little girl who first discovers the regality of a handsome woman.
The power of this piece is the honesty. It is a play that has a clear, moral center, and pulls no punches in its dysfunctional honesty. It moves briskly, it reflects lovingly, and it views the past sharply. All of these moments create a production that can be described with one simple word.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
S.F. Curran presents “Fun Home”
Based on the 2006 graphic novel by Alison Bechdel
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron
The Word: An beautiful and unflinching look at a dysfunctional family and all of their truths, triumphs and devastations.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Through Feb. 19th
The Curran Theatre
445 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
Tickets range from $29 – $149
For tickets, call (415) 358-1220 or visit www.sfcurran.com