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Theater Review: Fun Home

Becky Klose
Farmer's Alley Theatre

The musical Fun Home continues this weekend and next at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo. WMUK's Gordon Bolar has this review.

Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home details a young lesbian woman’s discovery of her sexuality and her father’s closeted life. The musical version of the same name is brought to the stage in a vivid and moving production at Farmer’s Alley that presents Bechdel’s relentless search for the truth among the shadows that darken her childhood.

Ultimately, it’s the telling of this story that set’s Fun Home apart and creates remarkable interchanges among characters across time and space.

Alison is portrayed onstage by three actresses at different ages in the author’s life. The adult artist, Alison Bechdel, played by Michele Maika Berg, narrates her upbringing from her drawing desk as she reviews her diaries, memories, and objects from her past.

She moves in and out of the action observing and commenting on scenes from the past, such as one in which Small Allison, her ten-year-old self, portrayed by Carly Koch, begins to explore her nascent talent for drawing though squelched by her disapproving father, Bruce.

Koch presents a believable persona for Small Allison as she shows us the energetic tomboy who plays airplane, elevated on her father’s feet over the living room rug. In “Ring of Keys” she shares her admiration for the strength of an “old school butch” delivery woman.

Credit Farmer's Alley Theatre
Farmer's Alley Theatre

Joining with her brothers, played by Brady White and William Pierce, Koch assists in the rehearsal of the hilarious over-the-top Partridge Family inspired commercials imagined by the Bechdel children, such as “Welcome to the Fun Home.” The words “fun home” are the kid’s shorthand for “Funeral Home”, and their song and dance efforts are indicative of the children’s need to escape their strife-ridden home life by retreating into the world of TV sitcoms.

The grown Alison looks unflinchingly over the shoulder of the teenaged Medium Allison, played by Megan O’Callaghan, as she has her first sexual encounter in her dorm room.

O’Callaghan’s Medium Allison transforms her character from a tentative coed to a determined young woman who knows what she wants. With “I Changed My Major (to Joan)”, she proclaims her new found love for her first girlfriend, rendered sympathetically by Emma Wineman.

Berg wisely keeps her distance from most of her character’s off-stage disappointments and missteps. She frequently escapes by retreating to her desk, perched above the action on the floor of the stage, to draw on her character’s past or search for the perfect caption to describe her pictures. Toward the show’s end, however, Berg’s Allison is sucked back into the torrent of arguments and hard feelings that pervaded her younger years in the "Fun Home."

Fraught with guilt and dread, Berg appropriately shifts emotional gears as she prepares for her long-awaited final car drive and reckoning with Bruce, her now deceased father, played by Tony Humrichouser. This is a drive that never happened and never could happen in reality. But it’s also a drive and a conversation that must take place in Alison’s mind.

As Allison shares the car seat with her now dead father in the number “Telephone Wire”, they talk around past differences and lies that separate them even now. Both actors endow the oblique banal small talk in the lyrics of the song with edgy import that says more about the gulf between father and daughter than direct communication could ever do.

Humrichouser, as Bruce, creates a memorable father figure who haunts Alison and defies her understanding long after his demise. We see a multifaceted individual whose fatal flaws are set off in stark relief by the unrealized desire to be a caring parent for his children. Humrichouser’s demeanor, his self-loathing, and mercurial shifts of mood, seem to suggest that there will be no easy answers.

Before his death, Bruce contemplates the restoration of a large old house, a project he knows he will never finish. In “Edges of the World”, Humrichouser shares his character’s gut-wrenching insights into the mind of a man who decides to make his peace with his failures and finish what he believes must now be done, as he exits down and offstage into a fiery light.

One of the most poignant character’s inhabiting the "Fun Home" is Alison’s mother Helen, played by Denene Mulay Koch. Koch’s stunning rendition of “Days and Days” presents the dilemma of a woman who is aware of her abandonment by her husband and struggles to continue the pretense of her marriage.

Director Kathy Mulay’s well-paced production stays on track throughout the hour-and-forty-minute performance without intermission, through the acting talents of her gifted ensemble, and with strong musical support from Cole P. Abod’s offstage orchestra. Lee Buckholz’s innovative scenic presentation complete with turntable for quick changes, and Laura Cornish’s lighting, generate the required seamless shifts in time, space and tone.

All of these elements are essential for a play in which Alison Bechdel’s present and past must exist in uncomfortably close proximity on stage. Alison’s search is for a truth that is nuanced can never be fully known or delivered in a neat package tied up in a pretty bow. But such is the story that Bechdel tells, and the one patiently attended by an appreciative audience on opening night.

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