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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Fun Home
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

The Cast
Photo by Kevin Berne
"My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town.
And he was gay,
And I was gay,
And he killed himself,
And I became a lesbian cartoonist."

As blunt and bleak as this summation appears, the musical that fills out the entire story of a small-town, Pennsylvania family—while heartbreakingly sad at points—also finds plenty of room for many chuckles and some big laughs, heartwarming memories, first-love romps, and difficult but powerful self-discoveries.

Told as a series of interlocking but out-of-sequence frames of a graphic novel in the process of being drawn, Fun Home is a musical in many ways unlike any before it. Lisa Kron's book and lyrics (based on the original graphic novel by Alison Bechdel) map the somewhat random thought patterns of the creative, remembering mind of an artist as she pieces together her troubled relationship with a father whom she describes, "My dad and I were exactly alike ... were nothing alike." Each word of a song or spoken phrase is placed with purpose of advancing her memoir of self-exploration, while the music of Jeanine Tesori—in both background score and in songs—supports, clarifies, and amplifies those words without ever trying to overshadow or outshine them.

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, under the empathic direction of Artistic Director Robert Kelley, presents a Fun Home whose rooms are full of a family's sweet memories, troubling secrets, and—in its hidden corners—liberating lessons for us all.

While busily at work at her drawing desk with sketch pad usually in her hands, a grown-up Alison of forty-three struggles to come to terms with a period of her life when she comes out as lesbian while in college at about the same time her mother tells her that her dad has always been a closeted gay—both occurring just four months before he purposively steps in front of an advancing truck. As she reflects and draws, her sketches spring to life on the stage as a Small Alison of eight and a Medium Alison of nineteen join her to create memory-rich moments piecing together a puzzle that might in its completion provide some answers of the many whys running through her mind.

Why did a little girl who so desperately wanted her father's love and attention so often get rebuked and ignored? Why did her mother tolerate so many years her father's obvious trysts with gardeners, delivery guys, college jocks, and even high school boys? Why could her father not accept who he was as she has been able to accept who she is? Why was she not able to help him, to save him?

Her pointed and detailed probing about gender boundaries, sexual orientation, parental tensions and disruptions, emotional abuse of children, and finally suicide are balanced by other, happier memories of sibling silliness, reading a book or singing at the piano with Dad, or soaring high in the air in his arms like an airplane. Her own story of the first inklings she has as a little girl that she is gay and of the final confirmation as a late teen in a dorm bed with a hot, to-be girlfriend that for sure she is a lesbian fill in more frames of her graphic, somewhat disconnected story—a story that in the end is a narrative that finds uneasy but possibly healing resolution.

Moira Stone reprises her recent role at Vermont Stage as the adult Alison with her short-cropped hair and black-rimmed glasses as she physically roams through the memories that are playing out around her. Along the way, she silently watches curiously, amusedly and intensely as she sketches. Sometimes offering spoken commentary and often probing Alison's past in song with pensive, brow-knitted looks of exploration, she occasionally brightens in a look of surprise as the frames she is drawing magically come together into some new "ah-ha." "I want to know what's true, dig deep into who and what and why and when, until now gives way to then," she sings with a voice sometimes echoingly hollow in its searching, other times firm in its new-found discovery.

Moira Stone never steps too far out of character as the serious, searching cartoonist/writer, even as both hilariously funny and horrendously disturbing things occur around her in her memories. She brings much face validity to Alison's adult cartoonist/researcher self as she is in dogged pursuit of how and why she is who she is as a lesbian and daughter.

Alison's story is mostly told through the exceptional acting and singing abilities of her eight- and nineteen-year-old selves. In a voice full of a little girl's relentless pleading and yet already hinting at the determined adult she will someday become, Ruth Keith is Small Alison (a role played in some performances by Lila Gold), who insists in the musical's opening lines, "Daddy, hey Daddy ... I need you ... Come here, hey right here ... Listen to me ... I wanna play airplane." Time and again in short interjections and in full songs, Ruth Keith sings with heart, crispness, and a maturity that commands attention. When she vocally relates in "Ring of Keys" with youthful glee, awe, and a clear sense of "uh-oh" how the sight of a delivery woman—"an old-school butch," the oldest Alison comments—grabs her little girl fancy, both the young actress's stellar abilities and the lyricist's daring brilliance shine forth in describing this seminal moment:

"Your swagger and your bearing
And the just-right clothes you're wearing Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace-up boots and your keys ...
Oh, your ring of keys."

Joined by Alison's younger brothers Christian (Dylan Kento Curtis, alternating with Jack Barrett) and John (Oliver Copaken Yellin, sharing the role with Billy Hutton), the three delight the audience as they perform their own commercial for their dad's funeral home—a 1970s, kids' rock number, "Come to the Fun Home," complete with a Pledge furniture polish spray can as microphone. Dancing in, out, and all around a cherry-wood, satin-filled coffin, their arms fling wild and legs spring crazy (thanks to choreography by Dottie Lester-White). The spot-on lyrics of Lisa Kron continue to roll out as the kids sing in their silly, shrilly voices:

"Come to the Fun Home.
We got Kleenex and your choice of psalm.
Stop by the Fun Home.
Think of Bechdel when you need to embalm."

As Medium Alison at Oberlin College, Erin Kommor provides the evening's most poignant, powerful, and often perky performance. Her heretofore tomboyish, rather shy and hesitant Alison explodes into hormone-rich ecstasy with her discovery of her sexual identity as she literally tackles the object of her affection, Joan (Ayelet Firstenberg). When Medium Alison sings "Changing My Major" ("to sex with Joan"), she beautifully reflects all the mixed-up feelings of someone just coming out: hesitant, scary, ecstatic, triumphant, totally turned-on. During that one song, Ms. Kommor's beautiful voice begins with lingering hints of a little girl's wonder and ends with the emerging sureness of a young adult who has finally discovered her core self.

House refurbisher, beloved teacher, and funeral home director, but also closeted, cheating husband and controlling father, Bruce is a complex man whom Alison is trying to figure out through her juvenile and teenage glimpses of him. As Bruce, James Lloyd Reynolds often shows more excitement and joy in simply looking at an old, discovered teapot than he does when with his own children or wife. With young Alison, he asks, "Is this silver? Is this silver or junk?" In doing so, he seems to be reflecting the watching, older Alison's question about the relationship she had with him. Was it real? Was it mutual love? Was it all surface and full of tarnish?

Mr. Reynolds' Bruce is an enigma for her and for us. We watch him in his escapades, his tirades, and his mostly feeble attempts to be a good father and husband. What we often see is a face that smiles without meaning it, that looks without seeing, and that tries to sound sure and solid with lots of fear and anguish so obviously evident. His angry, closeted self finds full expression while singing "Edges of the World," as he contrasts his fears of being who he is as a gay man with his joys in escaping into refurbishing an old, dilapidated house. A voice that itself is on the edge of breaking as he asks, "Who am I now?" finally soars with the found clarity of "I see how fine this house could be." We are then left with his gut-wrenching, achingly beautifully sung question, "Why am I standing here?" James Lloyd Reynolds leaves us with a tearful memory that will not soon go away.

As the mother and wife, Helen, Crissy Guerrero is often in the background, playing a piano alone in the parlor or slipping in and out with worried, perturbed looks. While her family sings in the beginning of the musical about a household that is all "polish and shine" with "everything balanced and serene," Helen sings a telling premonition, "And yet." Eventually, she has a chance to describe her view of the house on Maple Avenue in "Days and Days." In another of the evening's most wrenching moments, Helen sings in a voice reverberating with an emotional resonance that grabs one's listening heartstrings and tugs them deeply as she sings about "days made of bargains I made ... now my life is shattered and laid bare days and days and days." Ms. Guerrero's richly intoned vocals tell the story of a life full of continual heartbreak.

Showing much versatility of personas, Michael Doppe steps into many roles, including a Partridge Family-like rock star in young Alison's dream ("Raincoat of Love") and a hunky, cocky pickup for Bruce, who poses as a household helper. Along with the rest of the cast, Robert Kelley provides him and all members with impeccable, time-and-boundary-stretching direction where scenes blend, shift, and mold with split-second precision as Alison recalls her life and draws her story frames. Memories come and go even as members of the cast enter and leave the two main aisles of the theatre, dialogue and sight fading in Alison's and our memories as the next scene begins.

The beautifully sculpted, skeletal elements of a two-story home move in and out of the memory of Allison as well as on and off our stage—all designed in meticulous detail by Andrea Bechert. When combined with the lighting effects of Steven B. Mannshardt, the oft-brief scenes that flow seamlessly one into the other have an ethereal quality. Cliff Caruthers does a beautiful job of ensuring the many parenthetical remarks combined with the mixture of sung voices from different directions and settings have proper sound mixture, while B. Modern's costumes define the different time periods of the story, the various ages of Alison, and the range of personalities portrayed.

Finally, well-deserved praise goes to William Liberatore as the keyboardist and music director of an orchestra of seven fine musicians. Time and again the soft interventions of cello, violin, clarinet, guitar, or other solo instruments echo in soft refrain an important moment on stage or introduce a subtle shift in the cartoonist's framed story. The score of Jeanine Tesori is one of the best in memory for a modern-day musical, and this small orchestra provides full justice to her singular and combined lines of musical reflection.

For all the above and many other moments of a well-directed, well-executed production, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's Fun Home is a destination to be visited in person and then repeatedly re-visited in follow-up contemplation.

Fun Home, through October 28, 2018, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.

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