Theater

Review: Moving 'Fun Home' at Victory Gardens both heartwarming, heartbreaking

Memories are unruly, deceptive things. We can never be quite certain whether they are the truth or if we have unconsciously bent them out of shape over years of use and wear. Early on in Victory Gardens’ production of the Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home,” Alison, our narrator and protagonist declares: “I don’t trust memory,” as she ponders over a box of items that had belonged to her late father. Throughout the 90-minute show, we watch as she attempts to capture a past that isn’t always what she wants it to be. “Fun Home” not only is a deeply moving coming-of-age story, but also a probing exploration of the act of remembering even when it hurts.

Based on Alison Bechdel’s critically acclaimed graphic memoir of the same name, “Fun Home” opens in the present day on the now 43-year-old Alison (Danni Smith), a self-described lesbian cartoonist, as she attempts to draw her life story and piece together the domestic mystery around her father’s apparent suicide some 20 years prior. She conjures two past versions of herself to aide her in this task. The first is 9-year-old “Small Alison” (Stella Rose Hoyt, at my performance), through whom she navigates her eccentric family life and a complicated relationship with her demanding closeted father, Bruce (Rob Lindley). The second is “Medium Alison” (Hannah Starr), a college student away from home for the first time and coming to terms with her own identity and sexuality. The plot unfolds episodically, alternating between these two periods in her life, with the constant. somewhat spectral presence of grown Alison anchoring the narrative.

Lisa Kron’s script is a masterwork of intricate plotting and character development that manages to maintain fidelity to its source material without confusing the audience. In fact, the nonlinear plot structure expertly captures the nature of memory and self-reflection, with Alison’s recollections coming in a jumble, rather than as a neat and tidy, prepackaged story. Jeanine Tesori’s score (with lyrics by Kron) is an achievement worthy of all the praise that has been heaped upon it. It strikes a perfect balance between nostalgic, pastiche pieces such as the ironically bouncy, Jackson Five-esque “Come to the Fun Home” (performed skillfully and adorably by Hoyt and Preetish Chakraborty and Leo Gonzalez, as Alison’s brothers John and Christian) and more traditional modern musical theater numbers, such as the show’s iconic centerpiece “Ring of Keys.” The songs are lovely and, dare I say, Sondheimesque in their emotional complexity.

Director Gary Griffin effectively executes a minimalist vision that highlights the richness of the story and allows the performances of the talented cast to shine. Yu Shibagaki’s set design is spare and uncluttered. Pieces of furniture, such as an antique couch, a single bed or a drafting table roll on or off to suggest scene changes, rather than relying on bulky literal sets. The choice is not only utilitarian, but appears to be thematically appropriate as it challenges Alison – and perhaps more importantly the audience – to fill in the blank spaces.

Danni Smith’s portrayal of the grown Alison, peering in on and trying to understand her past, is the production’s clear standout. She guides the audience through her memories with charm and sensitivity, cringing at her own past awkwardness, and experiencing her childhood memories through adult eyes. Her performance of “Telephone Wire” is the moving highlight of the show. Notably, it is the only instance of the character stepping into her own story to relive and experience her final encounter with her father. Smith beautifully captures the desperation of fruitlessly parsing the past for hidden cues or moments that could have changed everything. When she begs the memory of that last night to be different, it is impossible not to experience the dreadful pang of her impending loss. Starr’s turn as newly out-of-the-closet college student Medium Alison is a delight. Her impeccable comedic timing balances perfectly with her authentic vulnerability, and her spirited rendition of “Changing My Major to Joan” simply soars. Hoyt also must be commended for her solid performance as Small Alison, a role that is extremely demanding, especially for such a young actor. Lindley admirably rises to the challenge of playing the complex Bruce Bechdel. He imbues the role with a nearly imperceptible fragility, portraying Bruce as a man who is giving his all to hold his carefully curated life together, but in his breathtaking final number, “Edges of the World,” we finally are able to see what is raging just beneath the surface. Swinging manically between rage at a life he cannot seem to control and a sublime appreciation for its potential beauty, if only he could, he vividly renders Bruce’s constant struggle between what is and what could have been.   

The experience of seeing “Fun Home” at Victory Gardens is a lot like recalling a childhood memory, in that it is a bittersweet one. It was difficult to decide whether what I had seen was an affirming celebration of life or tragic examination of the life not lived. It wasn’t until I remembered the full title of Bechdel’s memoir is “Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic” that I realized it is both. It is both the celebratory story of woman’s path to self-acceptance, as well as the tragedy of a man who was unable to do the same. It is rare piece of theater that walks the precariously fine line between heartwarming and heartbreaking and is all the better for it.

• A 17-year veteran of the theater, Kathryn McCord of Crystal Lake holds a master’s degree in English from Northern Illinois University. She is a former college English instructor and now works at the Crystal Lake Public Library.

“FUN HOME”

WHEN: Through Nov. 12

WHERE: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Ave., Chicago

COST & INFO: Hailed as one of Broadway’s most original musicals and the winner of five Tony Awards, “Fun Home” is a story inspired by Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir. In this intimate musical, Alison sets out to unravel the many mysteries of her childhood through a series of memories and conversations – from her coming out to her moving journey to acceptance. Tickets: $15-$75. Tickets and information: http://victorygardens.org or 773-871-3000.

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