Friday, September 22, 2017

Not quite for kids, Phoenix's 'Fun Home' is still a family show for all kinds of families

The saddest stage of memory loss is probably when family memories disappear. It's a sure bet you'll be able to test your hold on your
Alison at work on words and drawings from life.
own — the good ones and bad ones alike —  if you go to "Fun Home," the award-winning musical now making its local debut in a Phoenix Theatre production.

The unique appeal of this show is that its evocation of family life is specific, even peculiar, and at the same time contains so many circumstances of family life in general to speak to. Based on the graphic novel of the same title by Alison Bechdel, "Fun Home" is set in a small Pennsylvania town. Provincialism provides ballast for the risky cosmopolitanism of Bruce and Helen's marriage, but also exposes its fault lines. Bruce is a pillar of the community — a whiz at home restoration, a high-school teacher, and the proprietor of a funeral home. He's also subject to fits of temper and more damaging difficulties with self-control.

Bechdel's autobiographical narrative, focusing on what she learned about herself and her parents' troubled relationship, is shot through with her artistic as well as personal development. This has landed her in the thumbnail-sketch position of "lesbian cartoonist," as she sums up at one point when contrasting herself with her father. They are alike in both harboring same-sex attraction and thus struggling to resolve identity issues.

Alison's resolution occurs in college; Bruce's never arrives, from which difficulty his tragedy ensues. To give depth to this story, with its layers of mystery and revelation, Alison is given threefold representation. Small Alison displays the rambunctious tomboy, sensing her orientation early; Medium Alison is a college freshman resisting who she is and dreading coming out to parents she sees as repressed (Helen) and controlling (Bruce).

The design of the show is winning, because the significance of art and the powers of observation that an artistic sensibility requires provide framework, impetus, and setting for Alison's maturation. Lisa Kron's book balances the stages of Alison's awareness adroitly; the three-way division of the character allows the mature Alison to observe and comment on her younger selves. Her awareness of Bruce's hidden life becomes part of her insistence on establishing personal integrity. That project never took hold in the divided consciousness of her father.

Phoenix founding member Suzanne Fleenor directs the production, which benefits immeasurably from Cynthia Collins' portrayal of Alison. On opening night Thursday, Collins wore Alison's years of painful and triumphant self-knowledge authentically. Experience, ultimately liberating but sporadically shattering, seemed etched in her face. Kron had the brilliant notion to cross the temporal planes at one point so that the middle-aged Alison is riding in a car driven by her father in place of the Medium Alison she was at the time, hoping for a frank talk with Bruce about sexual identity. The full ache of this unsatisfactory conversation came through in the scene, keyed to the song "Telephone Wire."

The songs (by Kron and Jeanine Tesori), with accompaniment by an ensemble upstage and aloft, reflected well both the intimate and exuberant moments of this peculiar household's life, carried out in a museum-like setting keenly represented here by Jim Ream's elaborate, looming set. The  musical style is a mix of arioso and set-piece songs, quite well-paced and able to highlight the emotional temperature of the action at every point.

Though many songs that can stand alone have come from the musical stage, I prefer to receive them as necessarily embedded in the drama and serving as integral a purpose as, say, the set and lighting (credit to Jeffery Martin here). So, one reason why the show's hit "Ring of Keys" works so well as Small Allison's wide-eyed prepubescent realization of her identity is that the melodic line has little pauses before each item the budding lesbian cartoonist admires about the deliverywoman she sees one day. What she sees and what she feels are well-joined in "Ring of Keys." The song serves the drama impeccably. Its rendition opening night by Amelia Wray was, like her whole performance, winning in every phrase, gesture, and facial expression.

Centering Ivy Moody's performance as Medium Alison was another ideally placed song, "Changing My Major," an ecstatic celebration of first love. Something about the staging here, however, was a little off-putting. The college student's new girlfriend, Joan (given worldly wise acuity by Teneh B.C. Karimu) was partly in view on the bed behind Medium Allison; the unevenly covering blanket may have been an accident. In any case, it seems to me we should hardly have been aware of the actual Joan so that we could sink into Medium Allison's erotically charged description of her.

The songs reach deeply into the characters, such as Helen's "Days and Days" (strongly rendered by Emily Ristine) and Bruce's "Edges of the World" (a high point of Eric J. Olson's performance). They also take detours into pizazz, such as the three kids' mock commercial "Come to the Fun Home" and the full-company fantasy production number, "Raincoat of Love." Kron and Tesori give their regards to Broadway just enough, stopping short of anything that would  undercut Alison Bechdel's absorbing story. This virtue is capped by the beautiful trio that ends "Fun Home," sung by the three Alisons. With their arms spread wide, you are likely to feel they are inviting you to spread your arms as well — if only in memory.

{Photo by Ed Stewart]