BWW Review: FUN HOME at Santa Fe Playhouse
Fun Home Shines at Santa Fe Playhouse
"Welcome to our house on Maple Avenue
See how we polish and we shine
We rearrange and realign - everything is balanced and serene
Like chaos never happens if it's never seen"
Thus begins the story of Fun Home, now playing through June 30th at the Santa Fe Playhouse. The musical tells the tale of comic book illustrator Alison Bechdel - played at three different ages - 11, 18 and 43. The oldest incarnation of Alison is the narrator, and she fills in the blanks between flashbacks of her life growing up with closeted gay father Bruce, martyred mother Helen, and two goofy brothers in the family funeral home in 1970s/80s Pennsylvania. She is remembering her own coming out story while trying to analyze her father's secret life, most pointedly the night he kills himself, and whether she had the power to stop him from doing so.
Don't despair - yes, it's heavy, but there are also wonderful moments of lightness, love and beauty throughout this production. As Small Alison, Charlotte Carter is a wonder - at one moment, she's goofing around with her two brothers (played with comic panache by Michael Blessing and Teagan Wetzel), then fighting with her father for making her wear a dress, to asking her mother the most inappropriate of questions. Her big number, "Ring of Keys," is both poignant and sweet - tears were definitely shed during our performance.
Middle Alison Nadine Pineda is equal parts awkward and ready to jump in to her first relationship with a woman - her "Changing My Major to Joan," is delivered with a knowing sense of the mystery of life - her piercing brown eyes are incredibly emotive and effective at relaying her character's feelings.
As Joan, Mariah Olesen seems to be the most at ease in her skin - she is out and proud, and not afraid to be who she is, something every other character in the show seems to be fighting all the time. Her rapport with Alison's father is especially authentic and natural.
Alison's mother, a former actor (who Bruce says was a real force when at her height) turned schoolteacher is still trying to fulfill her passion in community theater. Played with great sensitivity by Karen Ryan, Helen is at once strong as steel and fragile as glass. She is the one keeping Bruce's secret dalliances with boys to herself, shielding her children from his bipolar wrath and still harboring a love for him. We as the audience are unsure if, had Bruce lived beyond the parameters of this play, if she would have continued to stay by his side. This is a tricky part, as Helen could come off as a shrew or a doormat - in this case, Ryan walks a perfect line, eliciting both sympathy and pity from the audience.
Of course, the whole show really lies in the hands of Bruce and the eldest Alison. Broadway veteran Brent Black shines in his role - his self-loathing and madness always just below the surface and his unpredictable fits of rage scaring anyone he unleashes them on. Again, like Helen, Bruce needs to have a sympathetic side- it seems like Bruce might have had a choice - years ago, right after dismissal from the service, to be out and happy or closeted and guilty for the rest of his life. Perhaps the choice he makes is the wrong one, but it does make for a taut tension underlying his every move.
Finally, MJ Sea as Alison has the toughest job - relaying the whole story through flashbacks, never actually interacting with the other actors onstage until the very end, where she steps in for Middle Alison on that last night spent with her dad. Sea is spot on in this role and creates the world Bechdel goes on to draw - her interjections are there to alleviate tension, color the scene, and give backstory to the memories. Sea does a wonderful job tying everyone all together.
Kudos to director Vaughn Irving for not only casting talented actors in every role, but also in finding actors who look like a family - I have seen other productions of Fun Home where the Alisons don't quite match, and it can be distracting. Kudos as well to Koppany Pusztai for filling in all the blanks and playing a virtual one-man chorus of characters.
My biggest wish for the Santa Fe Playhouse is a renovation worthy of the oldest playhouse west of the Mississippi. The technical and stage designers do an amazing job of cramming a lot into a teeny weeny space, but the Playhouse is coming into its own and needs more. Santa Feans would do well to get behind this and contribute to this very worthy nonprofit theater - each season is getting stronger and better than the one before.
Get your tickets for Fun Home now. For all I know, it's already sold out for the run - hurry!