“Fun Home” Throws Open the Closet Door—at City Lights
Jeanine Tesori’s Music Plucks Heartstrings at Funeral Home
by Amy Deng
In “Fun Home,” behind the façade of a family home, we discover a well of lies. I feel torn about City Lights’ production of the Tony Award winning musical. I find it both endearing and flawed—much like writer Alison Bechdel’s own family in the show.
Every intense eye contact between the father Bruce (Mike Rhone) and mother Helen (Caitlin L. Papp) radiates complex chemistry and foreshadows family tragedy. Bruce, a closeted gay English teacher in rural Pennsylvania, has engaged in multiple affairs with men. Adult Alison (Jessica Whittemore) knowingly observes, as she tells their story in her autobiographical graphic novel.
Rhone wonderfully embodies Bruce’s affection, repression, and hope; while Papp marvelously captures Helen’s patience, anxiety, and rage. Both parents suppress their misery over their broken marriage, while they struggle to provide a loving home for their three children.
Backed by a seven-piece band, Adult Alison takes us on her revelatory journey. As college-aged Medium Alison, Alexandra Ornes is captivating as she slowly discovers she’s a lesbian. In her enthusiastic, hilarious song about her roommate, “Sex with Joan,” Ornes embodies Alison’s naive embarrassment and newfound pride.
In composer Jeanine Tesori’s touching song “Telephone Wire,” I feel Adult Alison’s burning desire to connect with her closeted father. She looks eagerly into his eyes, praying, “Talk to me / Say something! / Anything!”
But Bruce hides the battle with his homosexuality. Lisa Kron’s heart-wrenching lyrics in “Edges of the World” reveal Bruce’s torturous struggle. He hides his sexuality to preserve their “fun home.” Fittingly, their beautiful old house is also the family business—a funeral home.
The old Victorian house, which Bruce obsessively decorates with antiques, stands for harmony haunted by deception. Rhone’s powerful yet vulnerable voice compels us to empathize with the LGBTQ+ community’s struggle with family and social rejection.
Chandeliers and a roof-shaped frame hang above the warmly colored stage, welcoming us into Adult Alison’s snippets of memories of years in that house. But the nearly bare stage snaps me out of her immersive, emotional journey.
Small Alison (Penelope DaSilva) and her brothers,Christian (Eli Asheghian) and John (Emily Asheghian), form an adorable crew. They crack us up as they create a silly, hysterical TV commercial for the funeral home. Small Alison struggles at first; but then, her sparkling eyes and energetic singing capture a child’s infinite wonder. Dasilva makes Small Alison a powerful force.
Although the choreography of “Raincoat of Love” felt slightly out of sync, scrupulous director Lisa Mallette invokes precision and delight onstage. Set changes carry a clear purpose: While Adult Alison sketches the house from memory, her family members reappear to remove furniture, illustrating the elusiveness of the past.
In “Fun Home,” love and self-liberation rise above tears and tragedy. Although Bruce is crushed by homophobia and his fear, Alison grows into an open, successful lesbian writer and cartoonist. Bravo to City Lights for a heart-warming musical spotlighting the struggle for sexual identities.
“Fun Home” –music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, directed by Lisa Mallette, at City Lights Theater Company, San Jose, California. Info: CLTC.org – to August 21, 2022.
Cast: Jessica Whittemore, Alexandra Ornes, Penelope DaSilva, Eli Asheghian, Emily Asheghian, Mike Rhone, Caitlin L. Papp, Alycia Adame, and Arturo Montes.
Banner photo: Jessica Whittemore (cartoonist Alison) muses on her life as she draws. Photos: Christian Pizzirani