Theatre Review: ‘Fun Home’ at Actor’s Express

Photos by Casey Gardner

Actor’s Express is presenting the musical drama “Fun Home,” music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, subtitled “A Family Tragicomic.” The show is directed by Express Artistic Director Freddie Ashley and runs through Feb. 16.

Oscar Wilde wrote: “Children begin by loving their parents. After a time they judge them. Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.” The epigram works very well here, except that forgiveness is present; you can decide for yourself.

Alison (Rhyn McLemore Saver) is a 43-year-old graphic artist who is using her pen to conjure up her past. Her story concerns her own sexuality, her relationship with her gay father, and her attempt to unlock the stories of their lives,

Her father, Bruce (Jeff McKerley), is a closeted gay man whose extra-marital affairs include underage males. This fact alone puts us in murky waters. The story is told in a series of non-linear vignettes connected by Alison’s narration.

Alison has accomplices: her “little girl” self called Small Alison (Eden Mew), and her college self called Medium Alison (Marcia Cunning). This device works very well indeed; all three actresses are fine.

Small Alison has two brothers: John (Vinny Montague) and Christian (Alex Newberg). You’ve heard the adage actors often quote: Never share the stage with children or animals. That axiom has been around a long time for a reason.

At the Bechdel Funeral Home, Small Alison and her brothers perform an imaginary advertisement for the home: “Come to the Fun Home.” Bruce, always mercurial, does not like this at all.

In college Medium Alison meets Joan (Michelle Pokopac), a confident young lesbian, and Alison has the first joyous love affair of her life (“Changing My Major”). She shyly shares this with her father, but Bruce is in painful denial of both himself and his daughter’s sexuality.

Meanwhile, the wife and mother of the piece, Helen (the always wonderful Natasha Drena), a college teacher, stays upstairs a lot and plays the piano, trying the blot out the painful truths of her life (“Helen’s Etude); such as when her husband invites the yard boy Roy (Juan Carlos Unzueta, who plays several parts) inside to seduce him. To me, Helen is almost a tragic figure.

By the way, the play shows that children have an inner strength, a tenacity and resilience that is inexplicable and miraculous.

After an Off-Broadway run, “Fun Home” opened on Broadway to much critical acclaim: The show won five Tonys, including Best Musical. I find this somewhat surprising; even though the music is outstanding, Broadway doesn’t often reward musicals with tones this dark. Although there are certainly bright moments, there’s not a lot of fun in “Fun Home.”

It’s a tribute to the human spirit and the excellent performers here that the show works. One critic wrote that the show “speaks to all families torn by secrets and lies.” And the ending, though not unexpected, is shocking.

Much praise goes to Jeff McKerley’s Bruce, who is often a distinctly unpleasant, unhappy person. Mr. McKerley is known for his brilliant comic creations in many shows. Here he has the fortitude to be “not nice” and a little scary.

Kudos to music director Alli Lingenfelter and choreographer Sarah Turner Sechelski. This is a show that isn’t easy to shake.

For tickets and information, visit actors-express.com.

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