Before the house lights go down to signal the start of Limelight Theatre‘s production of Fun Home, music director Sherri Long will step out on stage to give a few announcements. One of her announcements is to make sure you have your tissues handy as you prepare for act two post-intermission. I’d like to offer an addendum – you might need them for act one as well. In his note in the program, director Bradley Akers quotes one of the cast members. This story, says actress Stephanie Santiago, is about “the often frightening ways we come to arrive and live in our chosen identities.”
Based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home follows the adult Alison Bechdel as she remembers and explores significant moments in her life. After her father’s death, she dives into a murky past in an effort to tell the story of the complicated, unique, brilliant man that raised her, his often unpredictable temperament and his shallowly-buried secrets defining her childhood. Narrating the scenes from adulthood, Alison’s memories jump from her young childhood living in a beautiful old house and helping her father in the family funeral home to her first experiences at college finding herself and understanding her own sexuality.
Her father’s sexuality and his imminent suicide loom over the play, and the adult Alison attempts to understand her father’s world (and her own) with the aid of hindsight and age. It is in one part a desire to know and fully grasp the often unanswerable questions of her father’s life and death, but it is in another part a desire to know and fully grasp her own place in that world of hers.
Even though the self-discovery of Fun Home is rooted in her sexuality, there is a universality to Alison’s experience. It is not only a play for a teenager struggling with their sexuality or an adult who had a parent with secrets or any of the other characters or struggles you see on stage. Its themes and messages are poignant for any audience and important for every ear. It is, in many ways, a difficult play to watch. It is often humorous with entertaining songs and light banter, but there is a rawness to it that is unrelenting and an authenticity that refuses to let go. An innocent coming of age in one moment – a freshman college student singing of first love or a child exploring her love for cartoons – and an uncomfortable reality in the next – a father pursuing a young man with his wife in the other room – the play deals with brutal truths and the harshness of seeing one’s life in retrospect.
A talented local cast expertly navigates the difficult themes and demonstrates a fantastic chemistry with each other. Young Alison (Tess Therrien) is bubbly and bright, a picture of the innocence of childhood. She is able, though, to show a range of ability that reveals complicated relationships and inner struggles that found their foundation in youth and grew through the years. Medium Alison (Camryn Chiriboga) expertly conveys the insecurity we all felt in those first days away from home, the uncertainly of defining and understanding ourselves outside of the geographical and familial parameters to which we had become accustomed. This Alison, though, has by no means lost her youthful innocence as we’re treated to the playful unfamiliarity of first love with a more experienced and self-assured Joan (Stephanie Santiago).
The adult Alison (Laura Mauldin) is the perfect narrator. She is by no means omniscient; we are watching her remember and understand in the same breath. We are watching her new discoveries and feeling the pain of remembrance alongside her. Her negotiation of a difficult story feels real and honest and vulnerable. She wants to know and understand, and we’re invited into the experience.
Bruce Bechdel (Josh Waller) is a complicated man and a complicated character to play, but the performance is brilliant. It is difficult to make a character who cheats on his wife and has a volatile temper with the whole house sympathetic. The story doesn’t hold back from his faults and problems and neither does Waller. But the audience still feels the pain and the brokenness in an authentic way. It isn’t pathetic or melodramatic; it’s a quiet and hidden ache, a torment that bubbles over in outbursts.
Alongside Bruce Bechdel is his wife, Helen (Regina Torres), who has a quiet ache of her own. Torres beautifully communicates this repressed pain, the distance felt, the fear realized. Drew Fitzgerald and Ben Kerllenevich are delightful as Alison’s brothers, Christian and John, and have a real presence in each of their scenes and songs. Experienced first love Joan is magnetic, an encouragement and helpful voice, self-assured but still real and charismatic. Alejandro Ramos, who plays a variety of young men who come in and out of the lives of the Bechdels, is memorable in each of these roles and brings life to them with a beautiful voice.
Though full of laughter and jokes and upbeat songs, Fun Home is not an easy play. But it is an important one. It explores the world of the past, seeking to understand and appreciate. It’s refreshingly honest and excruciatingly authentic, and it’s a show you don’t want to miss.
Please note: Fun Home is definitely an adult show, so leave the little ones at home for this one.
Limelight Theatre’s Fun Home runs Thursdays-Sundays through August 25. Tickets are available at www.limelight-theatre.org or by calling 904.825.1164.