Theater Review: ‘Fun Home’ A Journey To Understanding | Art & Theater

Tennessee Williams reportedly wrote in his production notes for The Glass Menagerie that it “could be presented with unusual freedom of convention” because it was a “memorabilia piece.”

A cast and crew from Mill Mountain Theater executed this freedom from convention to outstanding effect in Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home.” The second show in the theater’s 2022 Fringe series still has a weekend on the Waldron Stage.

Bechdel built this distinctive and captivating musical on memories of her youth and her relationship with her father, a complicated man to whom she is devoted heart and soul.

The tone of the show is often upbeat and upbeat — except when it can’t be, as the cracks in the happy family facade multiply and grow like fault lines in the earth. Some pretty big plot points emerge early on, and the story is less about working towards an unexpected conclusion and more about the messy business of coming to terms with one’s past.

We meet three Alisons during this tight, 90-minute show: a little girl, a college student and a working adult. The latter literally sketches her memories in a graphic novel — the real-life memoir Fun Home, which made the New York Times Best Seller list in 2006.

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Hayley Palmer plays the adult Alison with thoughtful subtlety. She weaves her presence throughout the storyline, as narrator, observer or performer in various sequences of her life, with a wonderful deadpan performance for some of the show’s funnier lines.

Dad is played by Michael Hunsaker in a powerful performance that ranges from rampaging at his family to walking on eggshells, manifesting an inner turmoil he can’t escape. The real Bruce Bechdel has cobbled together a curious bouillabaisse of professions: English teacher, home decorator, and undertaker. “Fun Home,” it turns out, is the family’s nickname for the funeral home, not to mention a tragicomic pun.

Carlyn Connolly bestows a heartbreaking dignity on Helen, Alison’s long-suffering mother, who protects her children as best she can from the waves beneath the surface of their outwardly happy home.

Riley Whisnant, an aspiring seventh grader at Roanoke Catholic School and MMT regular, plays young Alison and continues to show some serious acting skills. Stephanie Berger portrays college-age Alison with the poignant vulnerability of a young woman grappling with a profound chapter in her life. This passage includes her newfound college partner, Joan, who plays Alexandra Rivers with sympathetic confidence.

Rounding out this top-notch cast are Josh Romeo and Lillian Salazar as Alison’s brothers, and Isaac Bouldin as Roy. All are great in smaller roles that nonetheless add important notes to Alison’s life.

It couldn’t have been an easy story to set to music, but between several standalone numbers and plenty of recitative, it works stunningly well, kudos to music director Dan Pardo and the brilliant voices of the cast.

“Fun Home” opened last weekend and arrived on the Mill Mountain stage in June to coincide with Pride Month. As director Katharine Quinn writes in her program notes, “Three-dimensional queer characters remain underrepresented in musical theater.” Given its themes of sexual discovery and revelation, the show is best suited for an adult audience.

The production team hopes Bechdel’s story will stimulate discussion in the wider community. But even for those who don’t have a touchstone in the LGBTQ+ world, “Fun Home” is, at its core, a human story that speaks to us all.

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