Among all the subcategories in the domestic drama genre, one of the most rarefied and exclusive must certainly be this: The coming-of-age story of a gay offspring living under the spell of a complex, difficult father who runs a funeral home until his tragic death throws the whole family into confusion and chaos.
And, no, I’m not talking about Six Feet Under, though the similarities are striking. The work I’m referring to is Fun Home, a musical adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori from Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name.
Now at Oregon Contemporary Theatre under the direction of Craig Willis, Fun Home is a strange and beguiling work. Using flashbacks and narrative intrusions from the adult Alison (the wonderful Allison Mickelson, who also brought the role to stages in Portland and Colorado), the author weaves an emotional tapestry that threads back and forth through time, touching on important moments in the development of Alison’s identity.
Those moments — by turns sentimental, nostalgic, romantic and harrowing — are all informed by the central mystery of Alison’s father, Bruce (Brian Haimbach), a closeted gay man who hides his secret life behind the orderly perfectionism of professionalism and domesticity — a perfectionism he sometimes inflicts on his adoring daughter.
Their relationship is complicated, to say the least, and his suicide leaves her bereft; she is forced to question whether his death and her coming out as a lesbian are related in some deep and disturbing way.
As the adult Alison says at one point: “Caption: My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town, and he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself. And I became a lesbian cartoonist.” This bit of post-song monologue reveals the combination of pathos and humor that is the musical’s greatest strength.
Fun Home is wonderfully impressionistic in the way it flips through Alison’s story, creating a kind of cumulative emotional wallop that takes you off guard due to its breezy charm and insouciance. And the dreamlike feeling of Alison casting back through her personal history is amplified by the music, which is wonderful (and accompanied by a live orchestra, always thrilling). It’s as though she’s spinning the radio dial to discover the sources of her own identity, song by song.
Willis has assembled a fantastic cast. Along with Mickelson and Haimbach, there is the always-strong Tracy Nygard as Bruce’s wife, Helen; Brianna J. Soumokil as Alison’s college girlfriend Joan; Hannah Oristano as “small” adolescent Alison, with Jo Meyer and Cash Creech as her brothers, Christian and John; and Benjamin Sanders, who takes on several roles, including that of Bruce’s surreptitious love interest Roy.
But an extra-special nod must goes to Lindsey Esch, whose portrayal of the college-age Alison nearly steals the show. Her comic chops are remarkable, and Esch portrays a young woman’s search for herself with a captivating blend of vulnerability, awkwardness and ravenous intelligence. She completely crawls inside the character, eking out the underground intensities of Alison’s struggle. Her authenticity is heartbreaking.
There were moments, while watching this show, when my mind wandered away for a few seconds, and I found myself thinking deeply about my own father, and how that sometimes fraught relationship has influenced my own identity, in ways at once insidious and inextricable, and not always easy to fathom. This is the power of Fun Home: It is entrancing and diverting, yes, but it sneaks up on you with some of the most universal questions we confront about ourselves.
Fun Home plays through Oct. 13; tickets at octheatre.org or 465-1506.