Funereal Fun ‘n’ Games in “FUN HOME” at the San Diego Repertory Theatreby Pat Launer August 27, 2018
It all started with “Dykes to Watch Out For.”
That was the provocative comic strip Alison Bechdel began drawing in 1983, chronicling the lives, loves and politics of a group of urban lesbians, featuring both cultural humor and biting topical commentary. It continued for 25 years, becoming one of the most successful and longest-running gay comic strips.
And it gave rise to The Bechdel Test, a now widely-used set of criteria for determining gender bias in works of entertainment. The three critical questions are: 1) Does it have at least two [named] women in it… 2) who talk to each other…3) about something besides a man?
Bechdel, like her central character, Mo Testa, is a politically-committed lesbian feminist.
She’s always had a fascination with memory.
That was the essence of “Fun Home,” the subtitled “tragicomic,” that brought Bechdel international fame. The graphic memoir recounted her childhood and the years before and after her father’s suicide (at least she thinks it was a suicide).
The book spent two weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, Time ranked it #1 on its list of Ten Best Books of the Year and it was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award for memoir/autobiography.
But not everyone was amused or enthralled.
In 2016, the Republican-led South Carolina House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee considered cutting the College of Charleston’s funding by $52,000 — the cost of the school’s summer reading program — for selecting “Fun Home” as the book all incoming freshmen should read.
That was the same year the musical version of “Fun Home” was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won five, including Best Musical.
Told as a series of time-hopping vignettes connected by narration provided by the adult Alison (there’s also a Small Alison, age 10, and a college-aged Medium Alison), the show, like the book, is a coming-of-age and coming-out story, a tale of a father-daughter relationship, and to a lesser degree, a mother-daughter relationship. Bechdel would explore that dynamic later in her second graphic memoir, “Are You My Mother?”
“Fun Home” was the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist. The score, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, made history as the first all-woman team to win a Tony Award for Best Original Score (Kron also won for Best Book of a Musical).
Bechdel could not have found better interpreters than writer Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine (née Levenson) to re-conceive her story for the stage. Both women conncect their interest in theater to early Jewish experiences.
Tesori, the most prolific and honored female composer in Broadway history, has garnered five Tony Award nominations. Growing up on Long Island, she started playing piano at age three, but was aiming for a medical degree (“I thought ‘Gypsy’ was a musical about Eastern Europe,” she has said). But then she spent two summers coaching at a kids’ theater camp in the Catskills and she changed her major to music.
Kron, acclaimed as a performer as well as a writer, grew up in the Midwest, one of few Jews in her neighborhood. She traces her love of theater to the Purim plays she performed as a child in her Reconstructionist/Conservative temple.
When she moved to New York in 1989, she and four friends became The Five Lesbian Brothers, an award-winning comic/political theater troupe that created witty, satiric material from a feminist/lesbian perspective. Ultimately, she turned her storytelling acumen within.
Her first play, “2.5 Minute Ride,” which had its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1996, went on to win the 1999 New York Press Award for Best Autobiographical Solo Show. “Well” opened on Broadway in 2006, and earned Kron a Tony nomination for Featured Actress in a Play. Both plays ran in repertory last year at Diversionary Theatre.
Like Bechdel’s graphic memoirs, one of Kron’s plays was about her father, the other about her mother. All these literary creations have harrowing elements – and a good deal of humor.
Both women were deeply affected by the backstory of their father. Bechdel’s father was a closeted gay man; Kron’s was a Holocaust survivor.
Bruce, Bechdel’s father, was gone for two decades before she was able to delve into his life and their relationship. Four months after she came out to her parents, at age 19, her father was killed by a Sunbeam Bread truck. Although the evidence was equivocal, she was convinced it was suicide.
A national tour of the musical, “Fun Home,” came through San Diego in 2016. But the intense and intimate show was swallowed up in the massive Civic Theatre.
Enter San Diego Repertory Theatre, which has been gunning to produce the show for years, ever since founding artistic director Sam Woodhouse first encountered it. He’s happily directing the musical this month (9/6-9/30).
“It’s a deeply beautiful story,” he says, “very personal and very potent. About these two huge events that happened in Alison’s life at the same time. Not until she’s 43 years old – about the same age her father was when he died –could she examine her memories of her mercurial, dynamic, unpredictable father.
“It’s such a complex story that Alison is manifested in three different personas, three different ages, in three different time periods. But at the end, all of them are onstage at the same time. There’s one psychic, unified person, time and place.”
Re-building the Fun Home – as a Musical
It took Bechdel seven years to write the book; Kron and Tesori spent five years trying to figure out how to tell the story as a musical.
As Kron has put it, “There’s a deep river of yearning that flows through Alison’s book that made it ripe for translation in the musical form.”
To Sam, “it’s a very lean and tightly told story. The music is absolutely gorgeous, hypnotic, woven with the text in intricate, beautiful ways. It grabs you from the first of its 96 minutes.”
Although Sam hasn’t worked with anyone in his high-profile cast, several are from San Diego, including Amanda Naughton, who plays adult Alison, and Bets Malone as her mother, Helen.
The Bechdel home was a living space and a funeral parlor. With the macabre setting and fraught emotional environment, the kids ironically dubbed it “Fun Home.” Bruce was an English teacher, a funeral director and a persnickety decorator of his house.
“It’s the story of how little access these people have to their feelings,” says Sam. “As this woman opens a box of relics, each time she looks at something, it reminds her of her father, whose exit left a hole in her psyche. Her memories take her back to earlier times. She’s not in charge of what happens; the memories fly off with their own energy and direction.”
Primed to Play Alison
For 15 months last year (across 32 cities), Amanda Naughton was the understudy for both Alison and her mother on the national tour. A San Diegan for 20 years, Amanda is a veteran of two Broadway shows, two national tours and innumerable regional theater productions, including 10 at The Old Globe and several at La Jolla Playhouse.
“I loved being able to play both mother and daughter,” Amanda says, “which gives me more insight about their relationship. Some heavy stuff happens between them. I love that my Alison has that knowledge about her. Her mother was very chilly and cold. With her three children, she’s always harried, dismissive, cross and unfair. She transfers her annoyances with Bruce to her children.
“But Helen had a great amount of reserve and strength,” Amanda asserts, “keeping the family secret and keeping the family together. In their time and small town, breaking up a family was a scandal. Helen and Bruce are both complex and fascinating characters.”
Amanda and Jim Stanek, who plays Bruce, share a history with the play – and with each other. They worked together in the ‘90s, and Stanek, who has numerous Broadway and Off Broadway credits, was the standby for Bruce on Broadway.
During her time on the tour, Amanda was fortunate to have met Alison Bechdel and Lisa Kron.
“Lisa is awesome,” says Amanda. “She has written her own personal experiences; now she’s writing about someone else’s personal experiences.
“And it’s great that I got to know ‘T-RAB’ [The Real Alison Bechdel, a moniker coined by the Broadway cast]. That absolutely influenced my performance. I also learned a lot from watching videos of her in interviews. I read the book many times. I want the audience to get a sense of who Alison is, how she walks, stands, tends to be self-deprecating.
“I looked at pictures of her home [in Vermont], her work space and drawing table. In the show, she’s trying to get started on this book about her father, mining her past, looking at letters, photos, trying to find a way into the story.
“When we meet Alison, she’s been a comic-artist for decades, since college. She’s sort of an outsider-type person. She’d been thinking, ‘I really should explore this topic – my coming out and my dad’s suicide.’
“As she’s excavating her history, she realizes her father was gay, and sneaking out to pick up guys. Her father and she connected primarily through books. Both were intellectual, extremely well read, and had a love of literature. Both grew up gay, but in different eras.
“Her parents were super-cerebral, but cold. Her mother was not demonstrative, and her father was given to sudden fits of rage and verbal abuse. Her parents didn’t even address each other by name. The stress and strain of keeping a lid on this big family secret was huge.
“The moments when we sing,” Amanda continues, “express the underlying emotions, what is not being said. Lisa’s lyrics are just so great and the music is beautiful.
“There’s definitely universality in this story. I think it was Lisa who said, ‘This show is for anyone who was born to a mother and grew up in a house with a family.’”
In her own family, Amanda is sixth generation of performers. Her actor-father died this past April.
“I think doing ‘Fun Home’ now will bring up some emotional things for me to explore, especially the father-daughter relationship. But I think it will be cathartic. I’m just sorry he couldn’t see me do it.” Α
“FUN HOME” runs at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza, 9/6 to 9/30. Tickets and information: 619-544-1000; sdrep.org.