A truck horn wails. The lights flash out onto the audience. And, in the silence that follows, the woman sitting next to me lets out a emphatic sigh. This powerful reaction was echoed by nearly all audience members in the dramatic, almost-final moments of Victory Gardens’ Fun Home: a chorus of emotional, agony-filled exhales as we took on our narrator’s pain and, ultimately, catharsis. Such a universal reaction can only be testament to the company’s wonderful rendition of Lisa Kron and Jeannine Testori’s heart-wrenching play (based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel). I’ve seen the show before, but I’ve never felt the emotional impact of it so intensely.
As you may have guessed by now, despite the play’s title, the Bechdel home around which the play revolves is not, in many ways, “fun.” Seeking to write her memoir, our protagonist Alison guides the audience through various recollections in her life, ranging from significant childhood memories through her sexual revelation in college. Looking back, the quirky, museum-like home she grew up in is one filled with many skeletons (both literal and figurative), and even the ecstasy of coming to terms with her homosexuality in college is, in retrospect, tainted by its effects on her father. Yet, for all her struggles, Alison captions us through the story with a wonderfully dark sense of humor, and the journey ultimately becomes one of hope.
This blend of comedy and tragedy would not be effective, of course, without three talented “Alisons” (Alison, Medium Alison, and Small Alison), and Victory Gardens outdoes the national tour on this account. Danni Smith (Alison) leads us through her recollections with such subtle emotional shifts that her nostalgia, laughter, misgivings, and regrets seem tragically, wonderfully real, and her powerful voice transitions effortlessly between speaking and singing.
As her youngest counterpart, Stella Rose Hoyt is enchantingly adorable and captures the innocence and naivete of a young girl desperately seeking her father’s affection, something which ebbs and flows throughout the play. And Hannah Starr, who I once upon a time had the pleasure of directing in a one act play myself, dazzles with her masterful comedic timing and energy. I’m pretty sure every audience member was on board with changing their majors to Joan after delighting in Hannah’s rendition of one of the show’s most loved songs.
Supporting performances by Leo Gonzalez (Christian Bechdel) and Preetish Chakraborty (John Bechdel) as Alison’s brothers and Danielle Davis (Joan) as Alison’s first crush bring much-appreciated light-heartened, energetic moments to the play. And I would be remiss not to mention the set design. In comparison to the Broadway or national tour productions, Yu Shibagaki’s design is much more minimalist, but this proves an asset to the show. We are, after all, in Alison’s head, floating through her memories and trying to piece out the important moments more than the important objects, and Shibagaki offers a better reflection of that.
The show’s only major misstep is in Rob Lindley’s portrayal of Alison’s father, Bruce Bechdel. Though Lindley certainly has the vocal chops for the role, as he proves in his almost redeeming final number, the charismatic, engrossing aspects of Bruce are lost in Lindley. So much of the show revolves around Bruce’s character; while many of his decisions are flawed, his character is one which must be magnetic. It’s the logic behind a beautiful, talented woman falling head over heels and remaining in an ultimately loveless relationship with her unfaithful, closeted gay husband. It’s part of the motivation behind Alison’s adoration for him and why, even in looking back and understanding more about her parents’ relationship, she passes little judgment on her father’s illicit actions (referring specifically to his penchant for using his status as a teacher to seduce underage boys). Lindley’s performance lacks these essential characteristics, though, and this makes the other characters’ motivations ring a bit false at times, despite their best efforts.
Still, the play’s ultimate effect is one compounded with laughter, tears, and inspiration. To say the things we feel while we can. To avoid judgment and seek understanding. To speak our truths, to ourselves and to other people.
Fun Home is an emotional rollercoaster worth the ups and downs.
Review by Emily Schmidt
Fun Home continues at Victory Gardens through November 12th. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.