Fun Home Brings a Sense of Peace to Real-Life Events

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When an audience member of Fun Home approached its playwright Lisa Kron and said it was “much bigger than a story of a lesbian,” Kron replied, “It’s exactly the size of the story of a lesbian.” A story about a lesbian is no small feat. Fun Home, which only hit Broadway a few years ago, was the first mainstream musical with a lesbian protagonist. The lack of representation of the LGBT community, especially in leading roles, makes this story all the more important and cements its place in history as well as in audience’s hearts. In addition to making history on the stage, it also broke glass ceilings in the writers’ room with the first all-female team to win the Tony for Best Score. Now, the first national tour has brought Fun Home to the Providence Performing Arts Center.

Fun Home is based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of her life growing up with a closeted gay father and discovering her own sexuality. The name comes from the family business, a funeral home that they ironically call the “fun home.” The musical features Alison at three points in her life: as a child, as a first-year college student and as an adult. The three timeframes are interwoven as Adult Alison, played by Kate Shindle, watches her two younger selves at pivotal points in her life from her desk as she tries to pull her memories into what will become her book. Throughout the process, her grief and unanswered questions surrounding her father’s suicide resurface despite her best efforts to stay detached, exploring artifacts from her past as though it were someone else’s, like an archaeologist.

Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan) is first beginning to explore her sexuality and her interest in drawing cartoons away from home and her father’s controlling perfectionism. She meets Joan (Victoria Janicki), a confident lesbian, who she is quickly smitten with. Beyond her quirkiness and awkwardness, Corrigan’s raw talent shines in her song “Changing My Major,” in which she boldly embraces her lesbian identity and her love for Joan.

Small Alison (Carly Gold), along with her brothers, Christian (Luke Barbato Smith) and John (Henry Boshart), easily charm their way into stealing the show, especially in the Jackson 5-esque “Come to the Fun Home” where they rehearse an original commercial for the funeral home loaded with gallows humor. Gold also shines in her more serious moments, like “Ring of Keys,” one of the best-known songs from the musical due to Sydney Lucas’s Tony performance, in which she feels an inexplicable connection with “an old-school butch.”

As Bruce, the overbearing patriarch of the family, Robert Petkoff can switch from a kind, charismatic father figure to a dangerous culmination of repressed urges at the drop of the hat. As Adult Alison explains, “Sometimes, [he] appears to enjoy having children.” Other times, his one true love appears to be his hobby of refurbishing historic houses. His most compelling moment comes at the penultimate number, “Edges of the World,” an emotional breakdown that culminates in his death.

East Providence native Susan Moniz, who plays the mother, Helen, spends most of the show in the background until the number “Days and Days.” Here, in perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the show, she comes clean about the difficulties she has faced as Bruce’s wife, standing by him even through his affairs with young men and run-ins with the law.

Because it’s the story of Alison Bechdel’s life, Fun Home isn’t a neatly packaged story with a clean, satisfying resolution. Like Alison, the audience is left with more answers than questions. Yet, with the absolutely gorgeous and uplifting finale, “Flying Away,” there’s a sense of peace and acceptance that some things will remain unknown, and perhaps that’s part of what makes this telling so masterful: that from real life to comic to stage, nothing was lost. Alison Bechdel admitted that she thought the musical adaptation of her life would be an artificial, arm’s-length retelling, but the opposite ended up being true. And that’s not just true for her, but for everyone, because even though this story is specific, there are universal components: the dysfunctional family in which “chaos never happens if it’s never seen,” self-discovery and self-acceptance, and grief and the unanswered questions that come with it. It’s about one family, but it’s also about every family. That’s truly the magic of Fun Home.

And, yes, it is precisely the size of a show about a lesbian.

Fun Home ran through Nov. 12 at PPAC. 

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