Encore Theatre's production of the Tony-winning "Fun Home" passes the test


Encore Theatre's production of Fun House

Sarah Stevens as Big Alison in Encore Theatre's production of Fun Home. Photo by Michele Anliker.

When I first read Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home -- the basis for a Tony Award-winning musical of the same name, now on stage at Dexter’s Encore Theatre -- I immediately sent copies of the book out to my three closest girlfriends.

It wasn’t Christmas or anyone’s birthday, but I couldn’t contain myself. Bechdel’s groundbreaking, bracingly candid, and bittersweet chronicle of a family tragedy gripped me so profoundly that my first, undeniable impulse was to share her story with others.

The stage musical adaptation -- with music by Jeanine Tesori, and book and lyrics by Michigan’s own Lisa Kron -- necessarily pares Bechdel’s tale down to its essentials, but it’s no less poignant while depicting Bechdel’s gleeful, college-age “coming out” and, shortly thereafter, her closeted father’s sudden suicide.

At Encore, Sarah B. Stevens plays the always-on-stage, present-day version of Bechdel, who’s struggling to sketch out and narrate her family’s history. (The “Fun Home” of the title is the nickname Alison and her younger brothers had as kids for the funeral home that has long been the Bechdels’ “family business.”) As she draws, she remembers various moments from her childhood and college days as they play out in front of her, until she finally can’t resist inserting her present-day self into the last late-night drive she ever took with her father (Daniel C. Cooney), urging herself to say something that will alter the course of what’s about to happen.

Fun Home, while moving, poses some significant production challenges for director Vincent J. Cardinal and his Encore team. With an intermission-less run-time of just 90 minutes, the memory-driven musical requires numerous scene changes, given its lightning-quick jumps in time and place. At Encore, some of these changes are more awkward and clunky than others, and one of Alison’s flights of imagination as a child -- an escapist, groovy Partridge Family fantasy -- felt pretty murky in its transition from the family’s dark reality.

Even so, there are goosebump moments in Encore’s show, particularly surrounding the triumvirate of actresses who play Alison at different ages. Stevens’ reactions to watching her younger self are sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking -- and that the actress must do this continuously, while sidelined during much of the show, is no small feat of acting. Plus, her self-flagellating, achingly restrained performance of “Telephone Wire,” in the show’s tensest scene moment, perfectly captures Bechdel’s helplessness in the face of certain, crushing knowledge.

Grace Allyn, meanwhile, playing Alison in college, brilliantly embodies the awkwardness and awe and sheer joy of a first sexual experience in “Changing My Major.” (I defy you to not find her repeated, reflexive leg-wrap around her partner, while standing, hysterical.) But for me, the show’s shining moment comes from its finest song, “Ring of Keys,” performed by Jojo Engelbert. A young Alison is having lunch with her father at a diner and the number springs forth when she spots a butch delivery woman entering the space. After being forced by her father to wear dresses, and a barrette she hates, Alison recognizes the person she really is, and wants to be, in this boots-wearing woman. Engelbert nails the character with her spot-on vocals evoking the thrill of suddenly feeling like you might have a place in this world after all.

Encore Theatre's production of Fun House

Dan Cooney as Bruce Bechdel and JoJo Engelbert as Small Alison in Encore Theatre's production of Fun Home. Photo by Michele Anliker.

Alison’s dad, Bruce, is a small-town high school English teacher and undertaker who also restores old houses and objects, and he wants everything (including his family) to look “just so." As Bruce, Cooney projects a desperately buttoned-up persona; for me, though, Bruce’s inner turmoil felt a bit too muted to pack a big, emotional wallop. So while we hear from other characters about the powder-keg potential of Bruce’s rage and self-loathing, I never quite felt like I’d caught provocative glimpses of that myself. We come close when Bruce finally lets us in, by way of Cooney’s searing rendition of “Edges of the World” -- wherein Bruce wretchedly describes his hopeless attempt to restore a long-abandoned, decaying house (a clear metaphor for his sense of himself). But it all still feels too contained.

Music director Tyler Driskill’s nimble orchestra, cleverly housed in an extension of Sarah Tanner’s fittingly fusty, patterned-wallpaper set, provides consistently strong accompaniment, while choreographer Reilly Conlon and costume designer Sharon Larkey Urick inject a sense of the '70s by way of loose-limbed dance moves and era-suggestive fashion. Robert Perry’s pointed lighting design helps bridge the show’s shifts in tone and time -- from the brightly colorful release of “Raincoat of Love” to the darkness-shrouded tight focus on Alison and Bruce during “Telephone Wire” -- and Tanner’s meticulous eye for props helps transport us all the more palpably into the Bechdel family’s carefully controlled world.

Ultimately, though, the emotional crux of Fun Home hinges on the awful question that Alison is left to ponder for the rest of her life: Did her own sexual liberation -- a rare moment of unbridled joy after years of repression -- lead to her long-frustrated father’s decision to kill himself -- or would he have made the same choice regardless? Wracked with guilt, Alison simply has to find a way to accept that she will never definitively know. 

But something that Alison’s story makes clear is that the random timing of our birth often impacts and circumscribes our lives in hugely significant ways. Like an image distorted in a funhouse -- or dare I say Fun Home -- mirror, these two people, both of whom felt drawn to others of their own gender, felt an imperative to live either closeted or “out,” within the space of just a single generation.

As Alison bluntly explains it, “I was just like my father. I was nothing like my father.”

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

"Fun Home" is at Encore Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter, through October 13. Visit theencoretheatre.org for tickets and more informaiton.