In the play Bechdel, played by Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs, and Sydney Lucas (Adult Alison, Medium Alison, and Small Alison, respectfully) and her two younger brothers (Griffin Birney and Noah Hinsdale) grow up in a small town in central Pennsylvania. Her dad Bruce (Cerveris) is a high school English teacher, an undertaker (family business with grandparents, etc.), and a dedicated house restorer. Her mom Helen (Kuhn) plays the piano, raises her kids, and suffers endlessly in a sham of a marriage. We don't know about the sham until later in the story.
Bruce is gay. Helen knows, but the kids are oblivious. What Bechdel and her brothers do know is that Dad is wont to fall into fits of rage and has a peculiar and particular sensibility about restoring their 100-year-old home to the finest, tiniest detail. It would appear that this house and his books are his true loves.
In a world fearful of anything outside the rules of heterosexuality, Bruce's books and house are about as safe and true a love as he is allowed. The extravagant and tender care he provides for every inch of his physical house is so much more than he can ever afford to offer to the closet in which he is forced to live. Or not live.
Eventually Bechdel heads to college and comes out of her own closet. But when she informs her parents, her Dad doesn't know what to say, and Mom is distraught. Mom outs Dad, and Bechdel's world flips upside down.
Without giving too much away, tragedy happens within four months of Bechdel's coming out. The family is forever rocked to its core. Bechdel can never be certain if her actions cleared the path for this tragedy. She will never know the truth. Sometimes the nebulous answers are the final answers.
Kron and Tesori wrote and scored the music for this play. It is, in a word, astounding.
Monday night's performance was an abbreviated version of the full musical. But there were numbers that stilled the room, save an audible sob from the audience. Picking a favorite is impossible, but three are listed here:
"Changing My Major" sung by Medium Alison is stunning in its universal feeling of that first love/lust. Medium Alison portrays Bechdel in college. She has a girlfriend, Joan. As the blossoming college student Skeggs portrays Bechdel's nervous butterflies of new love, hearty hormonal lustiness of her discovery of love, and a conviction to change her major to "Joan." Skeggs is darling. Her timid yet tenacious determination for love is contagious. It is easy to imagine Romeo singing this about Juliet right along with the protagonist singing about Joan. Young love. First love. The lyrics and music are bountiful.
"Days and Days" sung by Kuhn, explains why and how Mom put up with Dad all these years. She is reasonable, trapped, willing, and tragic. Damn the times that forced such falsehood not just on Dad, but on Mom and children also. Kuhn simply takes your breath away.
"Telephone Wire" is a duet, the last conversation Bechdel has with her Dad. Malone and Cerveris ebb and flow, pianissimo then forte into a storm with this tragic composition of the fear of truth and the threat of real conversation. Finally a moment is shared, but the intimacy is almost too much. Malone and Cerveris give in to the safe territory of small talk. Honesty is terribly demanding.
Here's the kicker: Bechdel's (and therefore the book's) sexuality is a small piece of the Rubik's cube of this play. Why do naysayers cling so often to sex? Sure, Bechdel's sexuality is a strong chord in a symphony of dischord, but it may be the only harmonic piece that makes sense in her life. The heart of Fun Home isn't about whom Bechdel sleeps with — or whom her father sleeps with for that matter — but about the complex relationship between parents and children. This ought to be permitted for college discourse. How does a student navigate realizations about one's true identity (sexual, artistic, mathematic, interests, motivations, etc.) when conversing with family back at home? How does a college freshman finesse communication with loved ones when presumed truth gives way to honest truth?
Since the short run of the play is over, read Bechdel's book. You just might find it more relatable than you imagined.