Based on Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed graphic memoir, this chamber musical is a quietly revolutionary work, intimately-scaled, uncommonly tender, sensitively aware of the heartbreaking ways in which family members are able to lock themselves away from those to whom they should be closest, estranged and marooned in their own inner struggles, victims of shame and uncertainty and pride. Simultaneously representing three time periods on stage (encompassing Alison’s adolescence, university years and her adulthood), revolving around the principle relationship with her father, it’s the frustrated search to comprehend her father’s act of taking his own life (on this matter, the work is equivocal, a great part of its conflict-and vexation-for the lead character). A rigourous, foreboding and unyielding figure prone to outburst and rage, Bruce Bechdel laboured as both funeral director (the “fun home”of the title, as nicknamed by the Bechdel children) and high school English teacher, who led a closeted life as a gay man, freewheeling through several affairs, many of which were ill-advised liaisons with students both former and current (one particular incident, in clammy fashion, led to court-mandated counselling). Having come out herself in college, a declaration met with some great resistance and difficulty from her father, Alison is left to muse on the ways in which her open, brave embrace of her orientation may have aggravated and exacerbated the strife at his core, her strength a rebuke to his cowardice and inability to accept himself. Staging throughout is minimalist, except for one reveal that knocks the senses sideways, as what has only been mentioned is magnificently, suddenly unfurled. The songs are the antithesis of the usual brass and pomp of slick Broadway musicals, instead quiet (and sometimes excitable), gripping extensions of intense inner emotional lives. Two pieces in particular (“Changing My Major to Joan” sung with all the ardour and enthusiasm of a young lover in the wake of a first sexual experience as college Alison gazes besottedly upon the sleeping form of her partner; and “Days and Days” painfully, mournfully delivered by Alison’s mother late in the play, revealing the sacrifices made to keep her marriage intact long after its demise) can stand next to any classic in the canon.
The power of the piece, as in any great work, is that the understanding of the dynamics moves quite beyond the specifics into the mythic-even if this is not quite every viewer’s story, it’s a very simple adjustment of detail that need be made to relate it to direct experience. The play steadily accrues a piercing momentum of melancholy and sadness, at its conclusion nearly overwhelming. Some answers are never forthcoming, no matter how hard and how often you ask and spin-the mysteries of motivation will remain out of reach and unknowable. But you will be able to eventually subject them to the assuagements and spiritual appeasements of art, at which Bechdel (and collaborators Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori) excel with wounding insight and sentiment. Fun Home closes 1 September-watch for a possible, much-deserved West End transfer, although I’m not certain the scale of a proscenium stage is the proper venue for such a personal work.