REVIEW: "FUN HOME"—Kentwood Players @ Westchester Playhouse

“Fun Home” Knows Where You Live.


Granted, it’s unlikely that many details of your childhood exactly resemble those of the narrator of this extraordinary musical, yet this impeccably shaded portrait of a girl and her father, which presently is on offer at Westchester Playhouse by Kentwood Players through June 11th, occupies the place where we all grew up, and will never be able to leave. That’s the shifting landscape where our parents, whether living or dead, will always reign as the most familiar and elusive people we will ever encounter.


When her father dies unexpectedly, graphic novelist Alison dives deep into her past to tell the story of the volatile, brilliant, one-of-a-kind man whose temperament and secrets defined her family and her life. Moving between past and present, Alison relives her unique childhood playing at the family's Bechdel Funeral Home, her growing understanding of her own sexuality, and the looming, unanswerable questions about her father's hidden desires.


Winner of Best Musical from New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, an Obie Award, a Lucille Lortel Award and also an Outer Cities Circle Award, as well as the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical, the script is adapted from Alison Bechdel’s fine graphic novel of a memoir, with incisive book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and heart-gripping music by Jeanine Tesori. It’s a refreshingly honest, wholly original musical about seeing your parents through grown-up eyes. But “Fun Home” might also be described as a universal detective story. Set in three ages of one woman’s life (embodied by three perfectly matched, first-rate actresses), it tries to solve the sort of classic mystery that keeps grown-ups in analysis for decades: Who are these strange people who made me?



The focus of that question here is an especially knotty case. Meet Bruce (Jon Sparks), who teaches high school English, restores old houses and runs a funeral home in a small Pennsylvania town. As the husband of Helen (Dana Weisman) and a father of three, Bruce is as divided personally as he is professionally—a fastidious upholder of the perfect-family facade who…picks up young men (all played by Grant Ruckheim) on the down low.


Sounds like the stuff of a pulpy Lifetime movie, doesn’t it, or of a choked-up, closure-seeking best seller? But while “Fun Home” is likely to keep you wet-eyed for much of its two-hour duration, it is also wryly and compellingly cleareyed — or as cleareyed as hindsight allows, when it’s your own family you’re scrutinizing.


Nevertheless, the nerve center is ever-changing in “Fun Home,” which is deftly and tactfully directed with precision and haunting emotional ambiguity by Kathy Dershimer, as is the time-stopping frames of the woman whose memory we inhabit. Amanda Webb is the 43-year-old graphic artist who uses her pen to draw her past into perspective. However, the objects she sees in the rearview mirror are both closer and farther away than they appear.



She has two vital accomplices in this task: the child (Natalie Cayetano) and the college student (Nico Fisher) she once was. These earlier versions of Alison kept journals, trying to make sense of a world that felt slightly off-kilter for many reasons, including her own nascent attraction to other women.


The adult Alison is seen peering over the shoulders (literally) of her former selves, wincing at what she was. She also conjures up the carefully restored, museum-like old house where she lived with her brothers, Christian and John (Ryver Townsend and Amelia Fischer); the Oberlin College campus, where she fell in love with a fellow student named Joan (a spot-on Julia Sison), and the lonely drawing desk where Alison works to give shape and substance to her ghosts.


But most important is the music, a career high for Jeanine Tesori (“Violet;” “Caroline, or Change”), which captures both the nagging persistence of memory and its frustrating insubstantiality, with leitmotifs that tease and shimmer. John Clancy collaborated and did the nuanced orchestrations. The music is woven so intricately into Lisa Kron’s time-juggling script that you’ll find yourself hard pressed to recall what exactly was said and what was sung.



And every member of the cast is fluent in this musical language, blessedly never pushing for effect. Not that there isn’t room for the occasional show-stopping number. How could it be otherwise when there are children on the stage? And they don’t disappoint. First, it’s “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue” in a euphoric, casket-riding commercial for Bruce’s funeral home that the Bechdel children whip up while hanging out in the mortuary. Then, the next sequence transforms Alison’s clan into a finger-snapping, Partridge Family-like musical group that coerces the audience into big smiles and thunderous applause.


Mr. Sparks rises wonderfully to the challenge of the show’s toughest role. Bruce isn’t just a man with a double life, but a character shaped with love and exasperation, recrimination and guilt by Alison’s recollection of him. He is both irresistible and forbidding, warmly accessible and icily opaque.


As befits a work that is both a coming out (on several levels) and a coming-of-age story, “Fun Home” features two exultant hymns of sexual awakening.


They are performed with spirit and style by Ms. Fisher on Alison’s first night with Joan (“Changing My Major”), and the incomparable Ms. Cayetano, in a fabulous ode to a handsome delivery woman glimpsed in a coffee shop (“Ring of Keys”). And the always excellent Ms. Weisman (“Days”), whose Helen is shaped by a resentment she can barely afford to express, gives full life to a lacerating 11 o’clock ballad of repressed emotions set free.


The family home, a fetishistically restored Victorian mansion on Maple Avenue; the vessel into which her father poured his love and passion and repression. The Bechdels lived in this museum in a state of profound isolation, eating together, but otherwise absorbed in separate pursuits. Alison's childhood was that of a small-town girl living in a big house where astral lamps and girandoles and Hepplewhite suite chairs were treated with more tenderness than she was.



So, if you happen to read Ms. Bechdel’s novel yourself, you may find it a comic book for lovers of words! “A family tragicomic” is the subtitle of the book on which this show is based. And it’s hard to strike the right balance in bringing that kind of oxymoronic quality to the stage. Her rich language and precise images combine to create a lush piece of work — a memoir where concision and detail are melded for maximum, obsessive density. She has obviously spent years getting this memoir right, and it shows. You can read "Fun Home" in a sitting, or get lost in the pictures within the pictures on its pages. The artist's work is so absorbing you feel you are living in her world.



Bechdel is also known to readers of the indie press as the author of a long-running comic strip called "Dykes to Watch Out For" — a Sapphic "Doonesbury" serialized in 50 alternative newspapers and collected in multiple volumes, with titles like "Dykes and Sundry Other Carbon-Based Life Forms to Watch Out For" and "Hot, Throbbing Dykes to Watch Out For." She's a lesbian, and sexuality looms large in her memoir.

Bechdel's father, Bruce, was gay (as she puts it: "a manic-depressive, closeted fag"), and "Fun Home" is at its heart a story about a daughter trying to understand her father through the common and unspoken bond of their homosexuality. The hopelessness of this desire is deepened by the fact that Bruce Bechdel was hit by a truck and killed shortly after his daughter wrote her parents a letter that announced, "I am a lesbian." As it happens, Bruce Bechdel was the town funeral director (hence the title, which comes from the family's name for the funeral home). Alison believes his death was a suicide, brought on in part by her own confession. Meanwhile, in the comic strip, in an ironic reflection on his death, a thought bubble comes out of her head, perhaps a defense mechanism, as humor fills every sad moment in this story: "I'd kill myself too if I had to live here."



KENTWOOD PLAYERS proudly presents the musical FUN HOME with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, music by Jeanine Tesori, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, which opened Friday, May 13th and runs through Saturday, June 11th. Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm at the Westchester Playhouse, located at 8301 Hindry Avenue in Westchester, CA 90045. Please note there will be no performances over Memorial Day Weekend, May 27-28-29.

Directed by Kathy Dershimer with Musical Direction by Cheryl Gaul, and Produced by Jenny Boone and Harold Dershimer for Kentwood. Set Designer is Kathy Dershimer; Lighting and Sound Designer is Michael Thorpe; Stage Manager and Choreographer is Roy T. Okida; Costume Designer is Kathy Dershimer; Property Masters are Jenny Boothe and Kathy Dershimer. Featured in the cast in alphabetical order are Natalie Cayetano, Amelia Fischer, Nico Fisher, Grant Ruckheim, Julia Sison, Jon Sparks, Ryver Townsend, Amanda Webb, Dana Weisman.


WESTCHESTER PLAYHOUSE is located at 8301 Hindrey Street, Los Angesles, 90045 in the community of Westchester, celebrating over 70 years of quality entertainment. For Tickets: email at boxoffice@kentwoodplayers.org Box Office: 310-645-5156 or purchase tickets

online at: http://www.kentwoodplayers.org/


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report

www.theshowreport.org


Photo Credits: Shari Barrett