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Cardinal Stage hosts book club conversation before ‘Fun Home’ performance

Bookmark it: Cardinal Stage to host book club conversation before ‘Fun Home’ performance

By Jenny Porter Tilley
June 18, 2018

In Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” one panel shows each member of the author’s family in a separate room, engaged in an artistic activity.

“The more gratification we found in our own geniuses, the more isolated we grew,” Bechdel wrote. “We ate together, but otherwise were absorbed in our separate pursuits.”

Avoiding discussions about difficult topics is a common theme in the book, but this week, the public is invited to do what the family didn’t: talk about it.

Bechdel’s story of growing up in a family that ran a funeral home with a closeted gay father was adapted into a Broadway musical, which premiered in April 2015. “Fun Home” is closing out Cardinal Stage’s season this month, and Wednesday’s performance will be preceded by a book club discussion during which fans can share their thoughts about Bechdel’s dark, humorous memoir.

Cardinal board member and retired Indiana University faculty member Jean Robinson will lead the discussion. She said unlike a traditional book club with a group that meets regularly, there is only one discussion event. Robinson plans to provide questions to get the conversation started.

“It’s not going to be like an English class where everyone’s going to have to make a comment,” she said. “We really just want to talk about some of the complex themes.”

Robinson, who has a background in political science as well as gender studies, said the book provides several heavy issues that warrant further analysis. She was excited to hear that the musical was selected for a local production, having read the graphic novel and its sequel, “Are You My Mother?” for her regular book club of retired IU faculty members.

“Bechdel is very literary and clearly knows her psychoanalysis,” she said. “There are parts of the book that are really deep, and it’s like reading an advanced level textbook.”

Along with the depth of its themes, the book follows a unique, nonlinear path. But that didn’t stop “Fun Home” from landing on the New York Times bestseller list in 2006, and it didn’t stop Bechdel’s story from continuing its journey to the Broadway stage.

In the book, the depth and gravity of the topics blend with visual representations of the author’s life, providing relatable scenarios that lend themselves to performance. And although translating a non-linear graphic novel about controversial issues surrounding sex, gender, family and death to a musical production may sound like a daunting task, Cardinal Stage artistic director Kate Galvin said its high stakes are why it works.

“It’s a very emotional story, and it deals with some really difficult moments that in real life these people didn’t talk to each other about,” she said. “So actually, because the emotional stakes are so high, it is a perfect piece for a musical.”

The musical theater world agreed. For 2015, “Fun Home” was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won five, including Best Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Michael Cerveris as Bruce Bechdel), Best Direction of a Musical (Sam Gold), Best Book of a Musical (Lisa Kron) and Best Original Score Written for the Theater (Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron).

“What’s notable in the play is that sometimes things do very clearly connect from scene to scene, even though you’re jumping through time,” Galvin said. “Other times, the payoff’s a little bit later, or the connection is very subtle.” Imagery taken from the original text for the musical often takes on new forms, Galvin said, but it’s still in the spirit of Bechdel’s original work, which bluntly examines pain and tragedy through the author’s relationship with her father and her path to discovering her own sexuality.

One goal of the book club, Robinson said, is to explore these themes despite the possible discomfort. She hopes both the performances and the book club will attract a diverse audience, not just those excited to witness and discuss the issues touched upon in the story.

“Our country is so divided over social issues, over what is appropriate, and over what are appropriate ways for people to live,” Robinson said. “Even if we disagree with each other, it’s important to understand and to be thoughtful about how people experience their own sexuality — how they grow as a person.

“There are so many things that this story touches on that are so much part of our daily discussion, and in some cases controversial. … Some people might be uncomfortable with a lot of the issues raised in ‘Fun Home,’ but it is part of our society, and I think all of us, no matter how we feel about it, have a responsibility to at least try to understand.”

“Fun Home” may cause some audience members to shift in their seats at the Waldron, but it also incorporates relatable and universal pieces of family culture. In a series of panels depicting Bechdel’s father balancing her on his feet while lying on his back, the author shares memories of her conflicted experience about playing “airplane.”

“As he launched me, my full weight would fall on the pivot point between his feet and my stomach,” Bechdel wrote, calling the interaction “a discomfort well worth the rare physical contact.”