“Welcome to the Fun Home” is one of those songs that stays in my head long after the show has ended. The three Bechdel children, standing in front of an open coffin, perform a joyous advertisement, which they wrote and choreographed, for their father’s funeral parlor. Every line from lyricist Lisa Kron masterfully captures the voice of childhood starting with… “Your uncle died / You’re feeling low / You’ve got to bury your mama / But you don’t know where to go.”
Many shows do not know how to use child characters, playing up their innocence as something adults should laugh at and dismiss as “cute.”* Fun Home, in contrast, celebrates children’s resilience. Despite growing up in a household with a deeply troubled father, the children can turn experiences like cleaning the funeral parlor into an opportunity for fun and creativity.
Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home exemplifies that the best musical adaptations are often based on complex source material (as opposed to popular movies of the 1980’s and 90’s). The graphic novel explores many plot threads, but one dominant line revolves around Bechdel’s memories of her father, who committed suicide when she was in college, and the clues that Bechdel missed regarding her father’s closeted homosexuality. Bruce Bechdel is both a loving father and a tragic anti-hero trapped in a time before homosexuality could be accepted in their small town. He is also an obsessive compulsive, who finds more value in ornamenting his home than in relating to his children.
This fall’s production of Fun Home at Victory Gardens Theater marked my third viewing of the musical. Great musicals get better with each viewing, but rarely have I encountered a one that opens so many new doors each time I see it. Fun Home is not a show one can sit back and passively enjoy without personal investment. My first Fun Home experience at the Circle in the Square in New York was enjoyable, but I also left somewhat drained. By the time the climactic “Edges of the World” arrived, I had so much I needed to mentally process that I did not fully appreciate Bruce’s stream-of-consciousness opus. With each successive viewing, I find myself eagerly anticipating each scene. Not just the music—although songs like “Changing My Major,” “Raincoat of Love,” “Ring of Keys,” and “Telephone Wire” are all winners—but the dramatic and comedic scenes as well. The intricate narrative races along at an increasing pace from the opening game of Airplane (in which Bruce uses his legs to hoist up Small Alison); to Medium Alison (Hannah Starr) describing her discovery of lesbian fiction to her soon-to-be girlfriend Joan (Danielle Davis); to the adult Alison (Danni Smith) agonizing over captions for very personal drawings.
Rob Lindley is always a strong Chicago performer, but he brought something extra to his portrayal of Bruce Bechdel. Fun Home includes a few snapshots of Bruce’s courtships of young men who had been students in his English classes, but an even more devastating scene includes Bruce sneaking out of a New York City apartment while his children are asleep. Lindley as Bruce presents every layer of conflict as Bruce knowingly lies to his daughter about getting a newspaper, propelled by an anxiety that waiting too long might mean he will lose his chance at a sexual encounter that night.
Fun Home is at once sad, evocative, engaging, and inspiring… and, yes, it is also fun. What other word could pay proper tribute to the only musical bold enough to contain a joyous song about embalming bodies—complete with the lyrics: “You know our mourners / so satisfied / they like, they like, they like / our formaldehyde.”
*From an early age, I felt the worst insult theater patrons could pay to a show is to refer to it as “cute.” Their intended meaning is probably that the show was light and inoffensive, but a more accurate interpretation is usually “lacking in substance.”