Alison Bechdel, a 19-year-old student at Oberlin College, anxiously writes a follow-up letter to her parents in her dorm room. She had written home earlier to share an announcement that was reciprocated with radio silence: “Dear Mom and Dad, I am a lesbian.” The ominous quiet is eventually broken, but the outcome is as she feared: denial, dismissal and disappointment. This disastrous coming out story has the ability to make anyone choke back tears and resonates with particular relatability for many in the LGBTQ+ community.
Frequently silenced queer experiences are brought into the light in Tony Award-winning “Fun Home,” the stunningly poignant musical based on Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name. Produced in the Bay Area for the first time ever by 42nd Street Moon, “Fun Home” tells a moving story of self-discovery and acceptance that is as enjoyable as it is important.
“Fun Home” is told nonlinearly, focusing primarily on Alison’s childhood and college years as her 42-year-old self painstakingly captures these past memories on paper. The story is told from the perspective of adult Alison (Rinabeth Apostol), Medium Alison (Teresa Attridge) and Small Alison (McKenna Rose). In addition to following Alison’s journey, the story explores her relationship with her father, Bruce (Jaron Vesely), who frequently had affairs with men but remained deeply closeted.
The musical’s narrative is incredibly humanizing; if depictions of queer lives are rare, even rarer are depictions that span decades and document childhood innocence, teenage awkwardness and adult assuredness. Alison realizes she’s gay in college, but the conclusion doesn’t come all at once. Through fascination with queer literature and the desire to wear traditionally “masculine” clothing, Alison’s revelation is authentically gradual and cathartic.
One number that exemplifies the musical’s aptitude for using subtle hints toward discovery is “Ring of Keys,” sung by Small Alison when she spots a butch delivery woman at a luncheonette with whom she is instantly enamored. The lyrics and Rose’s performance are both brilliant in this tender moment of connection. Deeply intrigued by this woman’s swagger, short hair and her ring of keys, 10-year-old Alison can’t fully explain her admiration, but she knows “(they’re) alike in a certain way.” Beautiful, personal moments like these demonstrate the musical’s poignancy.
Another standout number is much more on-the-nose than “Ring of Keys,” and more outwardly proud. Medium Alison’s “Changing My Major” describes her determination to do just that. Her new major of choice? Her first girlfriend, Joan. Specifically, she’s “changing (her) major to sex with Joan, with a minor in kissing Joan,” all something Alison decides once she wakes up from their first night together. The song is bright and humorous, performed by Attridge with contagious enthusiasm. It’s a little excessive at times, but so is first love. It’s refreshing to see a narrative positively and unapologetically describe and celebrate gay sex, especially given its endearing execution.
42nd Street Moon’s production of “Fun Home” boasts an extraordinary cast. Every cast member is evidently talented, but strong performances from the three Alisons truly make the production shine. Rose’s performance as Small Alison is filled with wonder, curiosity and depth beyond her years. Attridge gives a hilarious performance as Medium Alison as she charmingly, courageously grows into her own.
Apostol’s Alison, the wiser narrator, is the undaunted thread that holds the production together; she’s confident and consistent, grown-up yet still growing, and provides smart commentary as she guides audiences through her life. The Alisons are all filled with personality and authenticity, making the production absolutely magnetic.
A touching, true story about queer healing as bold as Bechdel herself, 42nd Street Moon’s production of “Fun Home” inspires and bolsters pride.
Joy Diamond covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].