Directed by Sam Gold and based on Alison Bechdel’s award-winning autobiographical graphic novel, Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home” made its Washington, D.C. premiere April 18 at the National Theatre. The musical delivers a striking study of human relationships, particularly those between father and daughter, as its protagonist Alison, played by Kate Shindle, struggles to determine how alike she and her father are. They both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. They both love literature. And they are, as Alison eventually learns, both gay.
As she attempts to sort through her father’s story — and by extension, her own — Alison revisits memories of her childhood as Small Alison, played by Alessandra Baldacchino, and her freshman year at Oberlin College as Medium Alison, played by Abby Corrigan. Throughout this personal exploration, composer Jeanine Tesori’s music, replete with reprises that tie the present to the past, as well as the scenic design by David Zinn carry the audience down the winding memory lane. As Alison struggles to piece together her family’s history into a coherent narrative, she encounters her own blind spots and uncertainties.
The stunning set of “Fun Home” mirrors Alison’s personal journey throughout the play. Starting as a jumble of obscure, old-fashioned objects — Victorian-era furniture, an old silver teapot, a door with a sign marked “Gay Union” taped to it — punctuated by Alison’s present-day writing desk, the seemingly randomly designed set begins to take clearer form as she starts to unravel her own memories, with each recollection becoming more elaborate. In the final scene, as Alison walks into her family’s old living room in a final memory, the mismatch of couches and piano have become a full-fledged, elaborately decorated interior: Alison’s past as she lived it, in vivid detail.
Alison’s rediscovery of her past as she attempts to understand her family’s story is intertwined with her own journey of self-discovery and early conflicts over her own identity: arguments with her father about wearing dresses as a young child, identifying with a butch delivery woman in a luncheonette and her first sexual encounter at college.
Despite its utter sincerity, “Fun Home” remains keenly aware of the irony of its own story — the title refers to a funeral home, called the “Fun Home” by young children who grow up with death as a fact of life. There is a continuous emphasis on the intersection of the mundane and the grave — Alison’s father catches his children hiding in a casket as they cheerfully rehearse a commercial for the family business, for example — which drifts from hilarious to haunting as tragedy becomes personal. All the while, Alison attempts to mine meaning from the smallest details of her childhood recollections in her hunt for answers.
It is easy to see why “Fun Home” won five of the 12 Tony Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Musical: Its music is stunning and well-placed. More impressively, the impulse for Broadway theatrics never overwhelms the show’s true strength — its story and the realness of its characters. Shindle is captivating as the smart and funny but haunted Alison, while the three younger cast members — Baldacchino as Small Alison, and Pierson Salvador and Lennon Nate Hammond as her brothers Christian and John — never fail to delight.
Perhaps the most powerful performance is delivered by Robert Petkoff, who portrays Alison’s father, Bruce, a character who easily wins over the audience even as Alison herself struggles with her feelings toward him. Bruce and Alison’s duets, which at times take place with Bruce in the past and Alison in the present, are the strongest parts of a show that has few noticeable weaknesses, illustrating the immense vocal and acting talents of the cast.
Performed without an intermission, “Fun Home” allows the audience to reflect on the undecided fate of the protagonist: Alison is ultimately left to draw her own conclusions about her family and herself.
Early in the show, Small Alison and Bruce fight about a school assignment, as he attempts to teach her to draw a realistic landscape and she resists with a cartoon depiction. “Maps show you what is simple and true,” Alison sings, but their conflict gives a more realistic picture: What you see depends on who you are, and Bruce’s story may never be truly understood by Alison, no matter how alike — or different — she and her father are.
“FUN HOME” runs at the National Theatre through May 13. Tickets are priced $48 — $98 and are available at thenationaldc.org.