Reviewed by Michael Morain
In a heartbreaking moment near the end of “Fun Home,” (presented April 4-8 at the Des Moines Civic Center), the actress who plays the middle-aged version of the main character steps in for a younger version and quietly climbs into the family car next to her dad. It’s unsettling, for both of them, because it signals one of those sudden turning points when both parties catch a glimpse of each other on equal terms. She isn’t a kid anymore, and he’s more complicated than she thought.
OK, so maybe that’s obvious, in the same way that a headline from The Onion once declared, “Report Finds Children of Parents Often Become Parents Themselves.”
But what pulls you into that moment—and this whole bittersweet Tony-winning musical—is the way it spins such universal coming-of-age truths around a specific character in a specific time and place, as distinct and memorable as Scout Finch in Depression-era Alabama or Holden Caulfield in midcentury New York.
This particular individual is the real-life cartoonist Alison Bechdel, 56, whose autobiographical graphic memoir of the same name provided the source material for the hour-and-45-minute show (without intermission). She grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania, where her family ran a funeral home they jokingly called the “Fun Home.” She came out during college, at Oberlin, and soon after discovered her dad was gay, too, and had struggled for decades to stay in the closet.
Under Sam Gold’s elegant direction, these chapters of Alison’s life play out in three overlapping nonlinear sections: at age 8 by the fine young actress Carly Gold (and sometimes Sofia Trimarchi), at 19 by Abby Corrigan, and at 43 by Kate Shindle (a former Miss America). Together the acting trio unpacks Alison’s memories as if rummaging through a box of old photos and blush-worthy diaries to find out exactly when she realized she was gay—and why she hadn’t noticed the same thing about her dad (played with aching depth by Robert Petkoff), who died too early to answer her questions.
The nostalgic mystery calls to mind the adult siblings from “The Bridges of Madison County,” who piece together the details of their late mother’s secret affair. There are even echoes of teenage Marty McFly, who travels “Back to the Future” to meet his parents when they were teenagers, too.
Designer David Zinn’s scenery sweeps in and out with the efficiency of a comic strip, although there were some glitches Tuesday night, and most of the songs, by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, sneak in on tiptoe, with just a line of half-sung dialogue or a hint from the onstage band. (Tesori and Kron’s 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical was the first to honor a work by two women.)
The score’s few traditional numbers really let their singers shine. Medium Alison lights up the stage after her first romantic encounter in college, with a woman named Joan Benson (played with cool confidence by Karen Eilbacher).
“I’m changing my major to Joan,” she sings, dancing around her dorm room in skivvies. “I’m changing my major to sex with Joan, with a minor in kissing Joan.”
(Incidentally, the real Joan lives in Iowa City and has made peace with the fact that her youthful canoodling landed in a Broadway show. “Does it feel as I remember it? No,” she told The Des Moines Register two years ago. “But does it feel true to how I came across? Absolutely.”)
Alison’s mother (Susan Moniz) maintains a dignified strength until the pain of keeping her husband’s secret finally cracks her spirit and spills out in a song called “Days and Days.”
And despite a jokey but hard-to-understand disco number with her two brothers, Little Alison delivers the show’s signature song “Ring of Keys” with remarkable aplomb. She recalls her first spark of attraction, triggered by the sight of a delivery woman with a ring of keys.
“I thought it was supposed to be wrong, but you seem OK with being strong,” the girl sings. “I want to … You’re so …”
She hasn’t learned the words yet, but she knows how she feels. And somehow, without the labels, that seems all the more real.
“Fun Home” starts at 7:30 p.m. through Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the Des Moines Civic Center. A guided conversation about the show’s themes of family and acceptance follows each performance, with facilitators from Des Moines Performing Arts, One Iowa and, on Wednesday only, a panel from the local chapter of PFLAG, the group formerly known as Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Find the details at www.desmoinesperformingarts.org.