Now that Fun Home is available for licensing, a number of community theaters have added it to their seasons. This Tony Award-winning musical is not one that is well-known among casual theatergoers, which means that those who decide to mount it do so because they love the show and its messages, and they want their community to experience it (as opposed to mounting a show that they think their community will want to see; get the difference?). Steel River Playhouse in Pottstown is the latest to explore the depths of this Jeanine Tesori/Lisa Kron musical, and they succeeded in bringing forth themes and feelings that I hadn’t realized in other, professional productions.
For those who don’t know: Fun Home is based on the 2006 graphic memoir by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel. It tells the journey of her self-discovery in parallel with realizing that her father, who killed himself while she was in college, was also gay. In the play, current-day Alison (Laura Watson) is writing her memoir and observing her 12-year-old self (Reese Grove) and her 20-year-old self (Shaelyn Parker) as they represent key eras in her life.
The show is performed in the upstairs Newberry Loft, which felt like a large classroom. The audience is seated on three sides of the action, leaving the entire floor available to the nine-member cast. There is also a live eight-piece orchestra behind a curtain. I learned that this is where most of the Steel River Playhouse musicals are hosted, despite there being only about 90 seats. Most of the cast was not wearing microphones (and the few who were didn’t appear to have them turned on), so at times the sound was uneven, but the actors did a fine job projecting throughout the room. It was only when their backs were to me that I noticed any issue.
On the far end of the floor was a simple backdrop– geometric shapes describing the basic form of a house, which lit up in various lovely ways. Throughout the show, though, beautiful set pieces were brought in to represent the Bechdel house and other areas, like their funeral home or “medium Alison’s” dorm room. They were not always placed in the same spot as they were before, which may have been for practical reasons, but also gave the show a broad sense of controlled turmoil, which is one of the subtexts of Fun Home (“chaos never happens if it’s never seen” is a repeated refrain).
Director Leena Devlin (also Steel River’s artistic director) cut to the core of these characters, and the actors were able to pull off her vision. Rob Tilley played Alison’s father, Bruce Bechdel with a combination of fiery masculinity and gentle flamboyance. Shaelyn Parker’s “medium Alison” showed what some might consider an overabundance of awkwardness and anxiety, but having read the book more than once, I recognized this portrayal as being hauntingly accurate. Reese Grove as “small Alison” was charming and bratty and confused and vulnerable, and wonderful. And Laura Watson as adult Alison brought a new dimension to the character that I felt transcended the book itself and other versions of show I had seen by coming to terms with the finality of her father’s death, 20-plus years after it happened, in front of our eyes. And kudos must go to Avery Spatarella as youngest sibling John for giving the audience everything in the title song!
The only technical flaw that I noticed was that there does not appear to be a monitor for the actors to see the conductor, so several vocal queues were mistimed, and once or twice I felt that the actor was unable to catch up, but most of the time they did. That will probably get worked out the more they perform it, and it didn’t detract from my appreciation of the show. Beech Creek, PA, where the Bechdels grew up, is only three hours from Pottstown, and knowing that brings a sense of realism to Fun Home. These are not fantastical, invented beings; they are real, they are our neighbors, and the journey Alison Bechdel takes could be akin to your own, or to that of person living next to you.
Fun Home runs though 2/16/20. For tickets and more info, visit https://www.steelriver-playhouse.org/