Stepping Out

TheatreWorks' 'Fun Home' tenderly probes tragedy


Kevin Berne/Special to the Town Crier
Small Alison (Lila Gold) and her father Bruce (James Lloyd Reynolds) share artistic passion in “Fun Home,” but love and commonality can’t conquer tragic circumstances.

Powerful, energetic staging and a universally excellent cast give TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of the Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home” sizzling excitement that balances the story’s intense sadness. The show opened Saturday and runs through Oct. 28 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

Based on the autobiographical graphic novel Alison Bechdel published in 2006, “Fun Home” premiered as a musical in 2013. It follows the cartoonist’s childhood and coming of age in the vibrantly technicolor 1970s or, more accurately, follows her close, troubled relationship with her father, Bruce. She grew up assisting him in the family enterprise, a funeral home abbreviated to the “fun home” of the story’s title.

Bechdel’s story spirals, moving in tighter and tighter loops around a tragically paired set of crises, Bechdel’s coming out as a lesbian – which should have, could have, been a joyful story of college self-discovery – and Bruce’s sudden, shocking death. It’s no spoiler to acknowledge that central detail here, because the show itself drops that bomb by the end of the opening sequence.

The narrative jumps between three Alison Bechdels. The young girl who wants to please her father doesn’t understand his anger and finds herself jarringly out of sync with her family’s expectations for her gender. The young woman Alison is scandalized and thrilled to discover how comfortable the label “dyke” feels when it comes paired with a fabulous girlfriend, Joan. And the mature artist Alison (Moira Stone) grapples with understanding the murky truths of her father’s unhappiness and its ripples across the family.

As the story speeds toward its inevitable conclusion, the adult Alison hovers closer and closer to the action, stepping directly into the scene to take her remembered place beside her father for a deeply sad song (“Telephone Wire”) about their closeness, sameness and the insurmountable distance presented by his continuing, closeted misery.

The strong cast includes young actors with powerful voices and commanding presence – Lila Gold, Jack Barrett and Billy Hutton all owned the stage on opening night, and Gold more than mastered a substantial role as Alison’s yearning, exploring young self.

Erin Kommor’s splendid singing as college-age Alison was paired with perfect physicality for the show’s charming take on wholesome sex (“Changing My Major”). Alison overcomes nerves, inexperience and ingrained awareness of how hard it is to be gay, discovering that a loving girlfriend is ample inspiration to, at least in daydreams, redirect her college education exclusively to the study of Joan.

James Lloyd Reynolds handily swings through the passion, anger, loneliness and confusion of a man committed to hiding his feelings but irrevocably set in his attraction to men. The anger that he can’t keep from spilling onto his family is overwhelmingly directed at himself, both implicitly and – during one of the shows saddest moments – when he tells a confused young Alison that he is going away, “Because I do dumb, dangerous things. Because I’m bad.”

The show is unflinching in showing how dark the father, Bruce, can be, both in the inappropriate ways he seeks intimacy with young men and in how unable he is to follow through on his love for, and understanding of, his struggling daughter as they both begin to almost acknowledge a shared identity as gay. By the time Alison says, “I had no way of knowing my beginning would be your end,” the story has set up a searing incompatibility between her hopeful work toward happiness and his failure to find a way forward. By the time the three Alisons join each other in harmony, their shared frustration and mourning is melodically and lyrically earned. They have something to tell their father, but he isn’t – wasn’t – ever able to hear them.

The production, directed by Robert Kelley, loops the audience into these spirals through an engaging use of every inch of the theater, sending the action up the aisles and along the wings and, in an intimately memorable number, perching on the forward edge of the orchestra pit. The live orchestra handily signals, in its delicate first opening woodwind notes, the magic that is to follow.

For show times, tickets ($40-$100) and more information, call 463-1960 or visit theatreworks.org.

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