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Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Where the Heart Is

THERE’S A COMPARTMENT in my emotional makeup that remains closed and locked, containing, as it does, the most miserable memories of my childhood. These memories are largely set in the house where I lived, and most of those are tumultuous, alcohol-fueled domestic battles. What peace I’ve made I made through turning a few of those moments into darkly funny stories, stories that give me control over what I certainly couldn’t control back then. I tell these stories to people who note, admiringly, how candid I am. But I’m not. It’s a trick, a sleight-of-mind.

Carly Gold, Robert Petkoff, and Kate Shindle
Photo by Joan Marcus

The National Tour of “Fun Home,” the 2013 musical drawn from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 memoir, opened for a week at Proctors in Schenectady on Hallowe’en, giving me one of the scariest experiences I’ve had in many years. There weren’t any monsters on stage, save for the everyday fiends known as family, but it was enough to unlock that compartment of mine and force me to look at what remains, for me, scarily unresolved. It’s that kind of story. So when I assert that it’s a hugely entertaining piece of theater, I mean it in the best sense: it’s a show that moves you and stays with you and burrows deep.

At the heart of the piece are two coming-out stories, but they’re stories that clash with one another. Young Alison (played as a child by Carly Gold and as a teenager by Abby Corrigan) only understands and embraces her attraction to women when she gets to college. Bruce, her father (the excellent Robert Petkoff) is a small-town schoolteacher who seduces boys, about which his wife, Helen (Susan Moniz), has been in grim denial. Bruce also runs a funeral home – the family’s joking name for it gives the memoir and this show its title – which gives a thick layer of metaphor even as it fuels the show with its most audience-grabbing number, “Come to the Fun Home.”

As we time-shift among key moments, the action is observed – recalled, more accurately – by a grown-up Alison, played by Kate Shindle. She moves among them, questioning them, interacting with them in an abstract way. They’re her drawings come to life, and her struggles to place a caption to each of those scenes becomes more difficult as the story progresses.

Like the show itself, Shindle moves between dialogue and song with seeming effortlessness. It’s a difficult role, in that her character’s purpose is to reveal what she already knows; it’s we, the observers, who change. She has a beautiful voice whether speaking or singing, and her presence becomes a comfort as we’re drawn into the music-fueled emotional flux. Her beautifully affecting solo, “Maps,” is an attempt to capture and contain the landscape of her childhood – a contrast to “It All Comes Back,” the opening number (sung by all, with Alison and her small self central), which becomes a dream of escape.

Fun Home Cast | Photo by Joan Marcus
No big plot surprises await; we’re told at the top what to expect to see, most poignantly the suicide of her father, an action towards the end of the show. (Bruce practices his own form of denial, telling Helen, “Every single person in this town knows what kind of man I am. You’re the one with the problem.”) Having revealed her sexuality to her parents, Medium Alison seeks approbation. Her father sidesteps the issue. Her mother emerges from silence to reveal what she’s long tried to ignore with the song “Days and Days,” as heart-rending a moment as you’ll ever see on stage, and performed by Moniz with such terrifying calm that I was shaken from what should have been that comforting place of disbelief.

Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984) was a watershed show, painting lyrics with music that resonated more deeply with those words than songs only intended to have a tune you can hum. “Fun Home” is one of the most successful pieces of post-Sondheim theater I’ve seen, with a score by Jeanine Tesori that insightfully illuminates Lisa Kron’s lyrics. The lyrics seem to struggle at times – it’s tough honing such thoughts to the diamond point that’s needed – but they integrate well with the book (also by Kron), heightening the conversational nature of the piece.

The rest of the cast – Luke Barbato Smith and Henry Boshart as Alison’s brothers, Victoria Janicki as Joan (Alison’s first lesbian lover), and Robert Hager as the boys in Bruce’s life – are also excellent, and the onstage musical ensemble showcases some superb local musicians. Sam Gold, who helmed the Off- and On-Broadway productions, also directed this one, and it worked superbly on the Proctors stage, also showcasing David Zinn’s versatile set. Even the amplification was far better than I often hear.

There’s no intermission during which to process your thoughts or numb them with drink, so you’re in for a very thoughtful ride home. The show continues at Proctors though November 5.

Fun Home
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron
Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel
Music director Micah Young
Directed by Sam Gold
Proctors, Schenectady NY
Oct. 31, 2017

1 comment:

Yvonne Perry H. said...

What a great, thoughtful review, Byron!