by Macey Levin
If a family says their life is trouble-free, it’s a fiction. The word “dysfunction” was invented to describe the dynamics of the Bechdel family of Beech Creek, Pennsylvania. A graphic novel written by Alison Bechdel is the basis for the Tony award winning best musical Fun Home at The Barn in Egremont, Massachusetts, a really funky theatre space.
The book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, with music by Jeanine Tesori, tells the story of Bruce Bechdel, husband of Helen, father of Christian, John and Alison. He is a high school English teacher who has inherited a funeral home and revels in single-handedly restoring old houses to their past beauty. He is a control freak who tyrannizes his children, especially Alison. He is also a closeted gay man.
The story is told by cartoonist Alison (Caitlin Teeley). In flashbacks we meet Small Alison (Mary Shalaby,) a middle school student, and Medium Alison (Emma Foley,) college student. As she relates her story about her younger self Alison remains onstage weaving in and out of events handing the actors props, addressing the audience. She and the other Alisons constantly have a sketch pad in hand. The early scenes of the play dramatize the family’s life in the funeral home. While playing in the mortuary the kids create a rousing mock TV commercial, singing “Come to the Fun Home.”
Bruce’s (Matthew Passetto) authoritarian personality often flares up. In one scene Small Alison is preparing a drawing for a class when he takes the sketch pad to “show her how it should be done.” He refuses to listen to her pleas to allow her to create what she envisions and walks away from her saying, “Go ahead, embarrass yourself.” Finally, she is cowed into accepting his version of her life. Later at a luncheonette with her father, Small Alison starts to examine her sexuality when she sees a masculine looking delivery woman and senses a connection with her in “Ring of Keys.”
Early in her college career, Medium Alison meets Joan, (Olivia Willcox) a member of the Gay Union Club. She accepts the fact that she is a lesbian and sings a terrific comic number “Changing My Major.” Informing her parens of her realization is very difficult, but she finally writes them a letter, which gets no direct reaction from Bruce or Helen. In a telephone conversation some time later, Helen tells Medium Alison that Bruce is gay and has had affairs with men throughout their marriage. When Medium Alison comes home for a vacation accompanied by Joan, Helen sings a wistful “Days and Days,” reflecting on the life she has had to live.
Kron’s book and lyrics are compelling. Not a word is wasted as she explores and exposes the hearts of the Bechdel family. The dialogue is suited to each of the characters’ age qualities and the lyrics span the spectrum of farcical notions to self-punishment. The music by Tesori delineates the characters’ feelings through the various phases of their lives.
The cast is uniformly consistent and age appropriate in all cases. Passeto elicits both our anger and empathy as he imbues Bruce with a raft of human foibles. His ire and his mea culpas are sincere as his character also displays congeniality and love. Teeley’s Alison seldom interacts directly with the other characters save for the ending of the show. As she does her narration and commentary we feel her angst and pleasure as her reflections bring back both painful and sweet memories. Not knowing how to react to the attacks from Bruce, Shalaby’s Small Alison shows the trepidation that engulfs her and as well as the joys of a pre-adolescent, while Foley’s Medium Alison grows in strength and character as she acknowledges the certainty of her sexuality. Francine Ciccarelli summons a range of emotions as she surveys what her life has become due to the frailties of her husband and needs of her children.
Fun Home is directed by Harrison Lang and Caitlin Teeley, two of the founders of the Ghostlit Repertory Theatre Company. The Barn is small space which also serves as a bistro and restaurant at different times during the week. The directors make good use of the space by creatively utilizing various areas. The bar serves as a meeting place where the characters have drinks. The restroom has various identities. Cast members sit in the audience making some of their entrances and exits to the same seating. More than this, Lang and Teeley have staged the play fluidly, creating effective stage pictures and maintaining a vibrant pace. There are no lags in scene changes. They also use a variety of inventive props.
The choreography by Natalie Sala is clever and well-coordinated, especially within the small playing area which is occupied by furniture. Isabel Filkins’ lighting design is effective despite having a minimal number of lighting instruments.
Fun Home is not a fun play. It is thoughtful, insightful and, ironically, entertaining. This particular production brings these elements to the fore.
Fun Home, Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel; Book and Lyrics: Lisa Kron; Music: Jeanine Tesori; Directed by Harrison Lang and Caitlin Teeley; Choreographer: Natalie Sala; Music direction: Gigi Teeley and Michael Pacifico; Cast: Caitlin Teeley (Alison), Emma Foley (Medium Alison) Mary Shalaby (Small Alison)) Matthew Passetto (Bruce Bechdel) Francine Ciccarelli (Helen Bechdel) John Ververis (Christina Bechdel) Ben Shannon (John Bechdel) Olivia Willcox (Joan) Jackson Teeley (Roy/Mark/Pete/ Bobby/Jeremy; Lighting Design: Isabel Filkins; Sound Design: Tom Teeley; Stage managers: Indie Beare and Zoe Nadig; Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission; Opens August 8; closes August 12; Egremont Barn, 17 Main St., Egremont, MA