I have been a fan of Vermont cartoonist Alison Bechdel for almost 30 years, first loving her comic strip, “Dykes To Watch Out For,” a groundbreaking celebration of lesbian life.
Nine years ago, Bechdel gained mainstream recognition with her graphic memoir, “Fun Home: A Tragicomic.” The story line drew us into the author’s dysfunctional family, particularly her relationship with her father. In college, Bechdel came out as a lesbian, only to discover that her father was a closeted gay man. After one conversation about their shared identities, a few weeks later, he died in what she considers a suicide.
Her memoir tried to makes sense of it all, to find some resolution. This work was game changing for the genre of graphic novels, as Bechdel disrupted the primarily male and straight pantheon of comic literature with her unabashedly queer sensibility. Her book was virtuosic, ingenious in its visual construction and literary execution.
“Fun Home” became a publishing sensation, selling more than a quarter million copies and was named Best Book of 2006 by Time Magazine. Since then, it has continued to have an amazing life. In 2013 it was adapted into a musical by playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori that played off-Broadway, winning four Obie Awards and short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize. Last month, the production transferred to Broadway and has been nominated for 12 Tony Awards.
What a beautiful production this is! The score is a luscious pastiche. Catchy parodies of 1970s pop tunes are juxtaposed with soaring ballads of burgeoning sexuality, as well as haunting songs of heartbreak and loneliness. The performers are superb, particularly the actors portraying the parents who deliver delicately nuanced portrayals of desolation and despair.
Three actresses portray Alison Bechdel at different ages: one as the adult cartoonist grappling with the persistence of memory, the second as her college student-self coming into her own, and a third plays the young Alison interacting with the family in what may prove to be a star making performance. All three yearn for a connection with the emotionally distant father.
Inventive theater-in-the-round staging brings the audience up close and personal, adding to the emotional wallop and poignancy. As the action and perspectives constantly shift, we experience a kaleidoscope of the family’s conflicted desires.
An added Vermont touch, 11-year old Oscar Williams of Charlotte is terrific as one of Bechdel’s younger siblings. I’m so glad I saw “Fun Home” on Broadway – it’s theater at its revelatory best.