“Fun Home” Bursts with Love & Feeling—at Berkeley Playhouse
Bechdel, Kron, Tesori Chart Musical Trail to Queer Identity
by Bailey Huston, Umut Yalcinkaya, and Philippa Kelly
Under William Thomas Hodgson’s subtle and beautiful direction, “Fun Home” shines with fresh feeling. The acting, singing and music captivate us, as father and daughter unfold their adventures of sexual self-discovery.
Spinning through Alison’s coming out as a lesbian, “Fun Home,” was first staged in 2015 by writer Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori, winning Best Musical Tony Award. The musical is gorgeously realized now at Berkeley Playhouse, leaving us thinking, laughing, and yes, singing, long after its close.
Based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel where she tells her own life story, “Fun Home” introduces us to Bechdel’s father Bruce (the wonderful Mark P. Robinson), clean-cut and bright-as-a-button, a teacher at the local school. And here’s the “fun home” part—Bruce also runs a funeral home out of the family’s antique Victorian house. The idea of last-stops and renovations reverberate as we watch Bruce struggle to control the pieces of his broken self, locked in anguish and confusion amidst the merriment.
The main character of Alison is split between three actors from three generations: Small Alison (Ayla Klasen), Medium Alison (Maia Campbell), and Adult Alison (Lucca Troutman). Campbell’s playful and delicious portrayal of “Medium Alison” connects beautifully with her younger and older selves.
Through the triple Alisons’ shifting historical lens, we see the damage Bruce causes to wife Helen (pitch-perfect Alison Ewing) and Alison’s two little brothers (irrepressible Sawyer Ciruli and Diego Ororio).
Dad is strict with his three children: “You are NOT allowed to hide in the coffins—get out of there!” But the children know their way around him. The Bechdel kids are funny and charismatic as they sing and dance their way into our souls.
Alison lets us know early on that the only way for Bruce’s family to escape is for him to escape them. Perhaps we can’t help gritting our teeth through the laughter as we await the father’s liberating moment.
But there’s darkness on the horizon, in the figure of a delightful William Thompson, playing several young guys who tempt Bruce to transgress his tightly-wound identity. In his deepest self, Bruce struggles to cope with the sexual embargoes of his time. His longing casts a poignant backdrop for his daughter’s journey toward love and self-acceptance.
The spectacular set, designed by Angrette McCloskey and Sarah Phykitt, is fabulously built out by Cal Shakes’ Scene Shop. The set plays with fascinating shapes that loosely represent a house, with strips of LED lighting that flexibly change the scene.
Watching Lindsay Kathryn Ford’s portrayal of Joan, Alison’s girlfriend at college, is a treat. While the connection with Joan nurtures Alison’s discovery of a tender, loving, and supportive side of queerness, Alison’s new-found freedom brings the family’s dark secrets into the light.
“Fun Home” shows two generational paths to queer identity—both under intense social scrutiny—and Alison’s path to joy triggers her father’s sad demise. Director Hodgson’s emotion-packed production is a beauty.
“Fun Home” –book & lyrics by Lisa Kron, music by Jeanine Tesori, based on the graphic novel Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, directed by William Thomas Hodgson, at Berkeley Playhouse, Berkeley, California. Info: BerkeleyPlayhouse.org – to April 2, 2023.
Cast: Maia Campbell, Sawyer Ciruli, Alison Ewing, Lindsay Kathryn Ford, Ayla Klasen, Diego Osorio, Mark P. Robinson, Danielle Sutro, Will Thompson, Lucca Troutman, Kyle Walsh, and Rowen Weeramantry.
Banner photo: Ayla Klasen (Small Alison). Photos: Ben Krantz Studio