Fun Home, produced by Portland Center Stage and playing now through Oct. 22 at The Armory, is about memory. It’s about coming to terms with pieces of your past and with the people in your past. It’s about Alison Bechdel (played by Allison Mickelson, and yes—it’s that Bechdel) looking at the crucial moments with her family that helped shape her as a person. Moments with a loving, deeply flawed and complicated father. Days full of playtime and imagination living inside a funeral home. Rites of passage in college.
The musical, adapted by playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori from Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir, opens with the cartoonist at her drawing table. “My Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town, and he was gay and I was gay and he killed himself and I became a lesbian cartoonist.”
It’s a heartache. The kind you poke and prod at and hold tenderly in your hands to cry over, laugh over.
The children who portray the Bechdel children—Young Alison, John, and Christian (Aida Valentine, Theo Curl, and Karsten George)—were exuberant and brought a palpable child-like guileless energy, particularly during their rendition of “Come to the Fun Home,” in which they create a ’70s-pop commercial for the family funeral home.
The story weaves back and forth between flashbacks and present day while Alison sits at her desk, working on her memoir, trying to remember the details of her memory. PCS’s production felt more like playing voyeur than I am used to in theater. It was like watching through someone’s window as they go through old home movies. Alison narrates her memories but never breaks the fourth wall to directly address the audience. This creates a sense of eavesdropping on a rich and intimate emotional environment.
They say the adaptation is never as good as the book. I don’t agree with that blanket statement. I can think of many exceptions; there are plenty of movies I enjoyed more than the source material. At the very least it’s not necessarily fair to compare the artists who were involved in the iterations. A writer is not writing for the screen and an actor is not acting for the page.
I found Robert Mammana and Faith Sandberg’s portrayal of the mother and father especially nuanced, every scene imbued with both their character flaws and strengths. But I found myself wishing that we were presented with more details about the mother. While Sandberg brought so much life—a visibly cracking veneer—in the original memoir we learned the mother is not only an actress (as the script tells us) but a teacher, a student, and a skilled cook. The exacting rules that the family sings in “He Wants” over and over and over again were not, according to the memoir, just the father’s rules being parroted by the mother. But who am I to argue with the Tonys?
An aside to the audience: There was also something a little frustrating about everyone laughing during “Ring of Keys,” a poignant, life-changing moment for a young girl seeing a butch woman at a diner and feeling a sense of kinship.
The final scenes are one heavy hitter after the next: the mother’s confession, Alison’s desperate attempts to talk to her father, the father’s mania and ultimate suicide. Just like in a real manic episode, there wasn’t much room to breathe from one peak to the next. And by the end of the performance, my entire row was sniffling and in various states of crying.
Ultimately, PCS’s production of Fun Home resonates: It sticks with you and makes you pick through all the thematic layers. I wanted an audience discussion afterward to give myself time to breathe and think through the multi-faceted performance I had just gladly been subjected to.
Fun Home, directed by Chris Coleman, is currently in production at Portland Center Stage at The Armory through Oct. 22. Visit pcs.org/funhome for more information.