All in the Family: Fun Home opens at the Public Theater

Last week I was in New York for an alumni event at Columbia University and took the opportunity to catch a preview of the new musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" at the Public Theater.  Short review: I loved it.  I loved it so much that I immediately wanted to find a venue to write about it and spread the word, but there was this one awkward snag in that plan: I'm completely biased.  First clue: this awesome portrait of myself and Doug which Alison did last year as I was getting ready to promote my book "I'm a Good Dog."  But it is more complicated than just that.

For a relatively brief number of years, early in our lives, my family and Alison's intersected on a regular basis.  She and her brothers were the same ages as my sister, my brother and myself, and we went to the same elementary school.  We had sleep overs.  And then we drifted apart in high school, the same time that much of the drama of her memoir comes into play.  But over the years we stayed in touch and so it was thrilling for all of us when "Fun Home" came out as book.  It was also strange (and I've blogged about this before) reading through the carefully detailed memories of events that I was a witness too.  In particular, there is a sequence in the book in which Alison's mom, Helen, rehearses for her role in "The Importance of Being Ernest."  We were staying at their house at that time, due to my own mother being ill, and each moment captured in the book of Helen running lines for the kids is exactly as I remember it.

The book, needless to say, was somewhat controversial in our home town, and in the aftermath of the publication, Helen stopped speaking to my mother, who she felt had needlessly promoted the contents of the book to the local community.  I was visiting another childhood friend in Oregon shortly after it came out.  That family, too, featured three children the same ages as the rest of us, and their father and stepmom were very clearly portrayed in the book as the swingers next door.  While visiting my friend Lisa, her stepmother called to ask if we had heard of the book and, although she caught us in the midst of discussing the book, we both denied any knowledge of it.  This is how intertwined we all were---even years later, and on different sides of the country, we were capable of immediately reverting to childish behavior.

What?  No role for Butley Cerveris?
My brother gave a copy of the book to his college roommate  Joe Mantello, who unexpectedly decided that it should be a musical.  And thus this new chapter in the life of "Fun Home" began.  But the family connections don't end there.  When the cast was announced, I learned that Michael Cerveris would be playing Alison's father, Bruce.  Michael's brother, Todd, is a long-time pen pal and was featured with his dog Butley in my book "I'm a Good Dog."  So now, I realized, I really needed to see it.  And when I got an invitation to an event at Columbia, a school I haven't visited since graduating back in the 90s, I decided this was my excuse to fly up and see "Fun Home."

Before heading to the theater, I checked with Alison (aka as The Real Alison) herself, who gave it a big thumbs up in her email. But I expected it would be strange to watch actors perform fictional versions of figures from my actual childhood.  And I was correct.  It was strange.  And wonderful. One of the first songs, in which everyone is assigned household chores, was so strikingly close to my own memory of being assigned chores while staying at their home, I worried for a moment that I would never manage to slip out of my self-assigned, imaginary role as researcher and technical advisor from my seat in the back of the house.   But in fact, the show accomplishes so many remarkable things all on its own that by the third number I was comfortably along for the ride.   Did it bring echoes of my childhood?  Yes. Did it resemble Alison's book?  Yes.  Was it a replica of either thing?  Not really, or at least not literally. There was no mention of Oscar Wilde, or The Importance of Being Ernest.  There was no Authors game, no clown terrorists. Yet in spite of its own unique qualities, or because of them, "Fun Home" is its own remarkable thing, a story not just of a family I knew, but one of families in general.

What was really remarkable to me, in fact, was how so much of what was new to the musical version of "Fun Home" was still remarkably true to life.  The musical numbers, whether giddy or mournful, felt as close to life as a piece of musical theater can come.  Some favorites:  the imaginary TV commercial for the Bechdel Funeral Home, the wonderful letter from college "I'm Changing My Major to Joan," and Helen Bechdel (Judy Kuhn)'s showstopper in which she tells Alison "I didn't raise you to come back here."  These moments strike familiar memories in all of us,  yet it was one non-musical moment that haunted me most: the scene in which Bruce (Michael Cerveris) takes one of Alison's drawings and begins to revise it into something "better."  Hadn't my own father done something like that to me? Haven't all of our fathers?

After the show, I waited in the lobby to talk to Michael Cerveris, and watched as each cast member was greeted by their family and friends.  For a few moments, the tiny little boy who played my class mate John stood alone next to a column.  I wanted to go introduce myself; I hadn't spoken to the real John in decades.  But then common sense got the best of me and I thought it might seem strange for a middle-aged man to approach a six year old and claim to be his old friend.  I did talk to Michael, as much about the show as about New Orleans, where I live and he has a house waiting for him to return if he ever stops working.  (It should come as no surprise, given all the other connections, that I actually know his house, because I almost bought it myself several years ago, but decided it was too small for my dogs).

Four Alison Bechdels.
Sydney Lucas, who plays the youngest version of Alison, came over, and I gave her my card, to show her the drawing Alison did of me last year.  And then Judy Kuhn stopped by and I told her how much the real Helen meant to me.  She was always put together and seemed like the ideal mom, though, of course, the show and the memoir are about the reality that lies beneath our family ideals.  (One of my few criticisms is that I wanted more Helen--and bit more of the adult Alison narrating toward the end.) As Judy Kuhn began to walk away, I had the strongest sense of connection between us over the character she plays, while at the same realizing that I am now older than the character she plays.  She is not my mother.

Which brings me back to the real Helen.  And that rift that occurred between her and my mom.  After my mother died in 2008, we followed her last-moment death bed instructions that we should have a party in our backyard.  I flew up from New Orleans and drive directly from the airport into this backyard party, populated by hundreds of relatives, neighbors, former students of my father, our babysitters.  At some point, in the chaos, someone told me "Helen Bechdel is here."  And there she was, along with Christian, looking exactly as I remembered and expected.  I reached to take her hand, but she held it up to show my the swollen knuckles of arthritis.  We probably knew we would never see each other again.

I was grateful that she came, even after not speaking to my mother.  I knew it would have made my mother happy to know she was there.


ToscasKiss said…
Very enjoyable, thoughtful piece, so thanks. I'll check out your books and other work. I'm really wishing Alison B. will write another graphic memoir (or graphic any story she wants to tell) soon. Finished "Are You My Mother?" recently--so wonderful. It may be time to go back and read the entire DTWOF from the beginning again. Wish I could go to NYC to see this. Crossing my fingers for cast recording, at least.

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