Or rather Fun Home – the Bechdel kids' name for the inherited funeral home they grew up in and the latest production at Ferndale Repertory Theatre. Alison Bechdel, oldest of the three children, published a groundbreaking graphic autobiography of the same name in 2006, charting her coming-of-age and coming-out as she watches her parents' marriage and her father's life falling apart. The stage version, with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, won five Tony Awards in 2015 and the Ferndale production, directed by Leira Satlof, more than does this challenging material justice.
The story is told in nonlinear flashbacks as the adult Alison (Molly Severdia) is creating the autobiography. It's an engaging approach that allows us to understand how Alison experienced these different stages of her life as they happened rather than relying solely on memory.
Small Alison (Karsyn Hammer) is a tomboy who'd rather wear dungarees than dresses. With her brothers Christian (Paul VandenBranden) and John (David Hendrickson), she mostly revels in being a carefree kid, creating hysterical fake television commercials for the funeral home and exploring her creative side. But she's also acutely aware that her high school English teacher father Bruce (Daniel Baer) can be spiky and unpredictable, and seems to love working on old houses more than working on building a happy family. Her mother Helen (Cynthia Martells), meanwhile, seems wrapped in a protective shell that she tries — not always successfully — to shield her children from certain aspects of their father's life.
Medium Alison (Kiara "Ki" Hudlin) has escaped the confines of the Bechdel Funeral Home for the freedom of student life but is unable to fully escape her father's desire to shape her intellectual life. She not only receives but also reads the many books he sends her, which serendipitously (deliberately?) included Colette's lesbian fiction. As Alison begins to explore related literature, she comes to understand why she has always felt outside the norm of what her life had taught her to that point. In quick succession, she comes out to the Gay Union, her friend Joan (Sienna Anderson), who immediately becomes more than a platonic friend, and (via letter) to her parents. She also begins keeping a journal, which complements and expands on the captions with which adult Alison is annotating the cartoon story of her life.
At this point, family cracks that have been pasted over for years begin to appear: Bruce's secret trysts with Roy the babysitter (Keenan Hilton), late night wanderings, court-ordered visits to a psychiatrist for "furnishing alcohol to a minor" and Helen's revelation that she has been living with and hiding this behavior since before they were married. But when Alison comes home from college with Joan for a visit, the cracked walls come tumbling down. During what turns out to be their final time together, Alison and Bruce are still talking past each other. Each has their own truths to face and to tell. But for different reasons, neither wants to listen to the other. All Alison wants to do is "make the fear in his eyes go away." Instead, he walks in front of a truck and dies. Suicide or accident? No one will ever know.
The three Alisons each inhabit their roles completely: Hammer's carefree tomboy is tinged with uncertainty and a vague sense of difference; Hudlin adroitly balances a growing confidence in her own self with a growing fear for what she may have done to her father; while Severdia is the consummate commentator, apart yet deeply embedded in the story. Baer is a commanding presence, hiding his fear behind unfeeling cruelty and dominance, and Martells' Helen is a powerful and deeply moving portrayal of regret for a life unlived. Anderson is a compassionate, supportive friend and lover, Hilton treads a fine line between friend to the children and "friend" of their father, and VandenBranden and Hendricksen inject a welcome note of childhood innocence.
The musical numbers, under the astute direction of Judi Sharnberg, build on and expand the story, adding emotion, color and depth to an intense story. The musicians themselves — Amber Grimes, Rachel Huang, Carl McGahan, and Laura Welch — are concealed behind various layers of the wonderful set designed by Michael Charles Smith. Technical direction by McGahan, costume design by Cindy Shepard, lighting design by Sydnee Stanton, sound design by Rebecca Albee and properties design by Gwen Price are uniformly excellent. Stage management is by Elaine Yslas, assisted by Amanda Nash and the deceptively simple choreography is by Cleo DeOrio.
Director Satlof, assisted by Ruthi Engelke, carefully peels away the layers of the story to reveal those invisible levels of complexity that make every family a different and unique experience. Recommended for mature audiences, Fun Home is a challenging work that's an important addition to the local theatrical repertoire.
Ferndale Repertory Theatre's Fun Home runs through Feb. 16 with Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m., and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.
Pat Bitton is a freelance writer/editor based in Eureka who is theoretically retired but you know how that goes. She prefers she/her.
North Coast Repertory Theatre's Life is a Dream, a philosophical fairy tale adapted from the Spanish Golden Age, plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Feb. 8, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through Feb. 9. For more information, call 442-6278 or visit www.ncert.net.
An alternative take on the Bard and the Danish prince hits the stage with local musicians playing an original score Jan. 30 through Feb. 1 with The Hamlet Question at HSU's Gist Hall Theatre. Call 826-3928.
The Arcata Playhouse hosts an international production of Plush and Barrio Caleidoscopio with Teatro de la Vuelta and Dell'Arte Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. Call 822-1575 or visit www.arcataplayhouse.org.
Immersive theater comes to the Bayside Community Hall when Taiko Swingposium recreates a Japanese American internment camp mess hall with actors, dancers, San Jose Taiko and the HSU Jazz Orchestra Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. Call 633-3155 or visit Taiko Swing Humboldt on Facebook.