BWW Review: A Darkly Funny FUN HOME at Ephrata
Alison Bechdel earned her place as one of America's best cartoonists long before inking her graphic-novel family autobiography, FUN HOME. It's one of the darkest of modern musicals, awash in family dysfunction and a suicide, but not only did Bechdel find humor in her family's truths, she also found some redemption by working through her relationship with her dead father. It's that, plus the music of Jeanine Tesori - here better yet than in SHREK - that lightens Bechdel's personal burden and provides real depth for an audience.
Lightening is the first thing you'll note in Ephrata Performing Arts Center's production of FUN HOME, directed by Artistic Director Edward R, Fernandez. He and scenic designer Jordan Janota festoon the "ceiling" of Bechdel's family home with beige lampshades that shine light from above, as Bechdel looks back, on her family's web of secrets and non-statements that confounded her youth. The beige is "vanilla" or bland, the appearance that her parents tried to give their small town about their lives while trying to hide their truths.
FUN HOME is a title with many meanings. The young Alison adored her father, and home was indeed fun for her to live in a great deal of the time. Fun could also, ironically, describe the family dysfunction. But it's also shorthand for the family's business... the Bechdel Funeral Home, known to Alison and her brothers as "the fun home," a shorter phrase. And it's the funeral home that shapes the family's life, with odd hours of embalming friends' families, with its use as a play area for the children, with Alison's mother and father leaving a life of art, writing, and theatre in New York and Europe to let the funeral home become the family's life, as it had her father's family.
Megan Falasco stars as Adult Alison, who's come back to her small Pennsylvania home town to deal with family belongings and family issues from the past, but it's her childhood self, Small Alison, played by Caitlin Paige, who owns the show. This small dynamo acts, belts - she's a remarkable young singer - and clearly owns her parents in a way that college-age (Cora Siburt) and adult Alison no longer can.
Have lives been wasted? Has mother Helen, wonderfully portrayed by Stacia Smith (her "Days and Days" is worth the price of admission itself) given up a life of professional theatre with actor/teacher Uta Hagen in Manhattan for a cramped life teaching and acting on a community theatre stage? Has Bruce, her father (Nick Smith, in a powerful turn) given up even more - art, antiques, literature, and his sexual identity - to stay with a wife and family in a small, stifling town? Is Helen living with a situation she's willing to accept, or has small town life boxed her into a corner she wants to escape? And does college Alison destroy the family's fragile dynamic when she comes out as lesbian in college, or has she ignored that her family has already broken invisibly?
More importantly in her grief, did the discovery of her own sexual identity cause her closeted father not only to reject her, but to kill himself?
It all sounds so heavy, so dark, but FUN HOME avoids the trap of melodrama by mixing a heady combination of total truth and small doses of infectious humor. Whether it's the children dancing on coffins as they write a commercial jingle for Dad's funeral home ("Come to the Fun Home", with John Laube and Conner Moodie as her brothers and backup dancers) or college Alison falling into a mix of love and sexual discovery ("Changing My Major"), or the Seventies variety show ensemble of "Raincoat of Love," there are moments of such levity that there's no time to brood, only for Alison to realize that everything in her younger life was far from dark at all.
If you come for no other reason, come to hear Stacia Smith sing "Days and Days" and for Caitlin Page to sing "Ring of Keys," in which a young girl learns something about herself that she also learns to try to ignore.
FUN HOME is moving. FUN HOME is powerful. FUN HOME, more especially, is truth revealed, minds awakened from dead memories and false understandings. Those lampshades on the ceiling shed so much light that neither Alison nor the audience will see falsely by the end of the show.
At Ephrata Performing Arts Center through the 12th. Visit EphrataPerformingArtsCenter.com for tickets and information. And visit this show. It's one of the most honest, truthful productions of the season.