If you’re looking for a musical for people who don’t like musicals, you probably can’t do better than Fun Home, the stage adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s wonderful graphic memoir currently playing at Portland Center Stage.
Fun Home is Bechdel’s inquiry into her father’s life and death as a closeted gay man, and her own experience coming out, set against the family business, a funeral home (“the fun home”). In Fun Home, Bechdel, best known as the author of Dykes to Watch Out For, crafted a speedy, spring-loaded read that remains one of my favorite books for its singular juxtaposition of dark topics with tidy, lived-in drawings and a light touch. The musical isn’t a slavish regurgitation of what worked so well on the page, which is fortunate, because it wouldn’t work. Instead, we get a true adaptation, complete with three actresses playing Alison at different ages (Allison Mickelson, Aida Valentine, and Sara Masterson) and some inventive, unexpected flourishes. One of my favorites is a Motown-infused number in which the Bechdel kids jump in and out of coffins with aplomb while singing a jingle promoting their family’s funeral home (“Stand right here when you sign the book/This is called an aneurysm hook!”).
Lisa Kron’s book and lyrics make for a brief but substantive performance (90 minutes with no intermission) and it mostly translates effectively in this production, which delivers its darker elements without devolving into scenery-chewing melodrama. In fact, as in the book, one of the theatrical version’s strengths is in containing its emotional core in small, ordinary spaces and moments. At no point is this more apparent than when Faith Sandberg, playing Alison’s mother, manages to express her enormous pain and regret about her marriage and hope that her daughter will have a happier life than hers—without getting up from the table where she’s sitting with a college-aged Alison. It’s a moment that contains everything about this character in a small, unexpected interaction, thanks in no small part to Sandberg’s alternately powerful and understated performance. Robert Mammana is equally effective as Alison’s father, Bruce, embodying his internal conflict between his prescribed role and his own desires in a way that is typically reserved not for men at all, but for tragic 1950s housewives like The Hours’ Laura Brown. It’s a gesture toward the numerous untold stories like his, and a poignant depiction of the tremendous loss caused by forcing people into the closet.
Importantly, this is also the story of a butch lesbian growing up and looking back at her younger self. Given Portland Center Stage’s established propensity toward conservative taste, at least in its ~*grand theatricals*~, Fun Home is not at all the play I’d expect. I’m glad to be pleasantly surprised.