Review: Victory Garden's Stunning FUN HOME
Intimate and emotionally real, Victory Gardens Theater's Chicago premiere of FUN HOME is a triumph.
Based on Alison Bechdel's best-selling, graphic memoir, the show begins with Bechdel (Danni Smith as the adult Alison) --now the same age as her father when he committed suicide-going through a box of her father's things trying to remember why she kept the junk. She soon uses her art as the medium to plunge into the box and assign it some significant meaning, essentially drawing what would become the popular graphic memoir.
Bechdel is also seen at two other distinct periods in her life: Stella Rose Hoyt is stunning as Small Alison growing up in rural Pennsylvania. Her father Bruce (Rob Lindley in what might be his best performance yet) is a stern, somewhat bipolar patriarch of the Bechdal family. He divides his time between teaching high school English, running the family funeral home, renovating their home and the occasional trick with students and handymen (all played brilliantly by Joe Lino to either reflect naiveté or, in the case of the handyman, an almost hustler-like willingness).
His wife Helen is a talented actress and pianist who has traded New York (she studied with Uta Hagen) for local community theater so she can raise Alison and her two brothers (played with much energy by Preetish Chakraborty and Leo Gonzalez).
The parents occasionally fight, leading Small Alison to escape into the world of a certain 1970's singing family. "Raincoat of Love" is an homage to "The Partridge Family" and anyone who grew up as a latchkey kid in the '70s will immediately identify with the moment.
We also see Alison as a freshman at Oberlin College (a geeky and loveable Hannah as Medium Alison). As her sexual identity is taking shape after losing her virginity to a butch lesbian (played with heart, humor and moxy by Danielle Davis), the college-aged Medium Alison sings "Overnight everything changed, I am not prepared/I'm dizzy, I'm nauseous, I'm shaky, I'm scared./ Am I falling into nothingness or flying into something so sublime?"
Her coming out to her parents has some might big ramifications. The first of which is with her long-suffering mother, Helen. She has been able to compartmentalize her husband's many flings, but Alison's coming out has forced Helen to face them once and for all. In "Days and Days," Carter gives a heartbreaking performance in which you figuratively see the layers of sheen and polish that she has painstakingly applied over all the cracks in her life get stripped away. When she tells her daughter to leave and never come back, it has nothing to do with her daughter's sexuality. She tells her "I didn't raise you to give away your days like me."
Medium Alison's proud and brave embracement of her sexuality also causes Bruce to finally implode. In "Edges of the World," composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Lisa Kron brilliantly repeat a tiny bit of lyric and melody, echoing Medium Alison's earlier statements: "I had a life I thought I understood./I took it and I squeezed out every bit of life I could./But the edges of the world that held me up have gone away/and I'm falling into nothingness or flying into something so sublime."
Her celebration of first love is his declaration of a life only half-lived. I've never really thought of the song as a male version of "Rose's Turn," but that is essentially what it is under Lindley's masterful performance. He feels lost and terrified at the thought of coming out and starting over. The only alternative he can see is to simply stop being.
As the narrator examining her earlier life, Smith's character appropriately approaches things in a distant and almost academic way. In a memory of a trip the three Bechdel children took with their dad to New York, she fixates on how many locks were on the door to avoid the painful memory of her father leaving the children alone in the apartment so that he can go cruise during Fleet Week.
Smith's performance is riveting; the minute adult Alison gets close to making a real emotion connection, she seems to purposely pull herself back into the role of an observer before the emotions can sweep her away.
When she finally does insert herself as a protagonist in her own memory it's during the haunting 11 o'clock number "Telephone Wire," in which she recalls her last moment with her father -a late night car ride in which she again fixates on the details of her surroundings all the while trying to nudge herself to "Say something! Talk to him! Say something! Anything!"
Much like his production last season of HAND TO GOD, director Gary Griffin has assembled an amazingly talented cast of Chicago actors and put together an intimate, emotional powerhouse of a musical that rivals (if not bests) the original Broadway production.
Far from sentimental, the show is, in a strange way, a celebration of how the re-examination of memories both exuberant and sad is sometimes necessary in order to lead one to a greater sense of understanding of the self.