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Review: Fun Home (Herald-Times)

Review: Cardinal Stage brings funeral home to life

By Connie Shakalis
June 18, 2018

This unsettling story reminds us — not to settle.

“Fun Home,” a musical playing at Cardinal Stage, is an autobiography of its creator, Alison Bechdel, and examines her life as a lesbian raised in a funeral home by two distraught parents. Her mother, Helen (Lanene Charters), is fully aware of her husband, Bruce (Eric J. Olson)’s, homosexuality — he, like their daughter, is gay. Helen feels equally burdened by helping run the family funeral home business, which Bruce insists be polished and perfect.

“The real object of his affection was his house,” narrates their grown daughter, Alison (Amanda Biggs), through flashbacks. “He wants the real feather duster used on the books,” cautions Helen.

The story whirls us through Alison’s life: Elena Rupp plays small Alison; Natalie Shea plays college-aged Alison and Amanda Biggs adult Alison, who has grown up to be an author/artist.

“He killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist,” she tells us.

A theme here is our tendency to settle for what we don’t at all want. “Why am I standing here?!” Bruce pleads with himself and the audience. Shortly after his and Helen’s wedding, he took her to visit his old military buddy. Then, out of frustration that he had married a woman, he viciously berated her. This happened, I think, before Helen knew of his homosexuality. So, why did she put up with his unexplained verbal abuse? And why did he?

The action takes place in the 1970s, so we can be fairly sure why Bruce (angrily) stayed put. “I can draw the circle you lived your life inside,” adult Alison sings at one point, in her imagination, to him.

We do that. We hope things will get better. We stay. Tolerate. Later, resent.

For the “Fun Home” family, at least, things don’t get better — and, yes, Bruce commits suicide, and Helen suffers in silent (until the finale) rage, finally telling Alison never to return to the funeral home. This is not rejection; it’s Helen’s desire to spare Alison from a life of feather dusting the books and taking care of others’ needs.

Helen explains how people can fall into living unsuitable lives: “Days and days and days — that’s how it happens,” she sings. Both she and college-age Alison imagine confronting Bruce but always seem to take the quiet route instead. “Maybe not right now,” each sings at different moments.

In fact, it’s the small Alison who confronts. She starts the play by seeking her father’s attention: “Daddy, your’e making me mad; I want to play airplane,” she sings. But he’s busy, of course, polishing and painting things and inspecting his damask linens. With a child’s immunity to rejection-fear, she is relentless in pursuing his attention. By the time she is grown, however, life’s gut-punches have taught her to avoid conflict.

The best thing about this show is its casting, which is probably the finest I’ve seen in years. Every main character seems to have walked out of Bechdel’s script, dressed and ready to enlighten. The director normally casts, so I’m assuming this is the talent of Cardinal Stage’s artistic director, Kate Galvin. It’s almost disappointing to have not one single criticism of these singer-actors. (I’m smiling.)

In that regard only, “Fun Home” is no fun to review.

I started my note-taking Friday night jotting the names of the musical’s best actors, and, dang it, my list ended up with all — all —the adults. Olson wrenched my heart as the father; as Helen, Charters awed me with her frantic “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue” (Oh!); Shea, as college-aged Alison, not only looks like Biggs here, but is as impactful; Biggs, with her ubiquitous just-right facial expressions and her famous belt voice (she sings opera too, although not here), as ever, impressed; Mary Beth Black shone with compassion and believability as Joan, Alison’s college lover. Sean Puent as a number of characters, particularly funeral home customer Pete, moved me. Rupp as small Alison reminded me of a child version of the clever comedian-actress-writer Laraine Newman.

Galvin’s direction had every sightline covered; just when I thought, “Hey, I can’t see so-and-so,” across the stage so-and-so would travel, no audience member neglected. As good directors do, Galvin discovered — and brought to the fore — the talents of this skilled group.

Theater can provide an art show as well as an acting one, and this production does. Britton Mauk’s set, adorned with fireplace — which marvelously serves as a casket entrance — lit wall sconces and chandelier, Persian rug and those feather-duster-worthy books, also includes a mirror, which seemed to reflect Biggs’ perfect profile as though on cue.

The orchestra was a highlight, the man seated next to me noting its professionalism. I enjoyed pianist and musical director Charlotte Rivard-Hoster’s keeping in character with whatever mood was taking the stage. Cellist Gabriel Jimbo Viteri added some chilling touches during Bruce’s final foreshadowing admission, “I am somewhat envious of this new freedom that appears on campus these days.”

Galvin settled for no less than top-notch talent; you might want to settle into one of those auditorium seats.