After the actors had all taken their bows to thunderous applause at the San Francisco premiere of Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's musical Fun Home, Carole Shorenstein Hays -- the flamboyant theater producer and owner of the newly refurbished Curran Theater -- handed a microphone to Alison Bechdel and essentially demanded that she speak.
Bechdel, whose 2006 autobiographical graphic novel of the same title was the basis for the evening's entertainment, spoke graciously and with great poise both about the production and our country's current political situation. She was brief and made no grand statements. Yet there was something about the way the 56-year old graphic novelist carried herself that was so vivid and human, it threw into relief many of the problems and tensions within Tesori and Kron's lovely but flawed attempt to give theatrical life to Bechdel's actual life. It rarely happens, but the real thing shone brighter than the entertainment.
Fun Home is an ambitiously structured drama, taking on the stories of three versions of "Alison" all at once: the child who intuits her father Bruce’s sexual preferences and finds secret solace with him; the young adult desperately in need of her family to recognize that she has, in coming out, become a fuller, slightly different version of herself; and the mature graphic novelist struggling to give shape to her father's sudden suicide at 44.
Memory plays are a notoriously difficult genre, and Fun Home loses shape and focus every time the adult Alison takes the lead. There's just not much for her to do except comment on the action. Worse, this unbalances and undercuts the force of the other two narratives, sometimes in trite ways.
After a wrenching moment in which Bruce desperately tries to impress a member of the Allegheny Historical Society with the restoration of his Victorian house and the picture-book perfection of his family, the adult Alison says, “And he was gay. And I was gay. And he killed himself. And I… became a lesbian cartoonist.” The narratorial distance might work as a caption in a graphic novel. But on stage it comes off as a diminishment of actual pain. It turns suicide into a snappy one-liner.