Weston Playhouse’s ‘Fun Home’: Unflinching musical tells Alison Bechdel’s story

Jim Lowe / Staff Photo

Jim Lowe

“Fun Home,” the Tony-winning musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, will be only the second to grace the new Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm. The innovative musical follows Bechdel at three stages in her life, as she grows and grapples with her uniquely dysfunctional family, her sexuality and her father’s secrets.

“It’s about what it’s about,” explains Malcolm Ewen, who is directing. “It has a complex narrative line between several stories that intertwine, but to me the main story is the father-daughter relationship that is upset by Alison’s coming out.

“And her drive for the truth, I think, is true to (Bechdel’s) actual nature,” he said after Sunday’s rehearsal. “It’s unflinchingly real.”

Weston Playhouse Theatre Company will present “Fun Home,” with book by Lisa Kron and score by Jeanine Tesori, July 5-28 at the 140-seat Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm.

The 90-minute musical is based on the 2006 book of the same title by Bechdel, the renowned gay cartoonist who lives in Bolton. The show premiered Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2013 and transferred to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre in 2015. Winner of five Tony Awards, “Fun Home” ran for a year and a half on Broadway before touring the country.

Bechdel’s story is relived by three different Alisons — the child, the teen and the adult — as they work their way through the development of her dysfunctional family life and, most importantly, the complex relationship with her father.

“I would credit Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori for the fact that it’s kind of unflinching,” Ewen said. “It’s a great humanizing story of one man’s struggle through a very troubled time — and it’s very truthful because it’s, in fact, real.”

This will be Ewen’s final production as Weston co-artistic director as he, Steve Stettler and Tim Fort are retiring after 30 years from the administration of Vermont’s oldest professional theater at the end of the 2018 summer season.

For Ewen, the tragicomic and very real story of “Fun Home” is an unexpected subject for a musical.

“The music is great for the story,” he said. “Jeanine Tesori is a chameleon composer who writes appropriately for the material.”

She has composed successful scores for such diverse shows as “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Violet” and “Shrek the Musical.”

A unique challenge for this play is making the three Alisons, played by three separate actors, individual yet consistent.

“They’re far enough apart — at least 10 years apart — so they can have different character traits,” Ewen said. “It’s not like Alison has a tic you keep repeating, but you do want to be in the same kind of world, and we’re still working on them to coalesce them into one.”

Costuming is one opportunity for achieving both.

“They clearly like T-shirts and jeans more than they like dresses,” Ewen said. “Their worlds change, of course, because small Alison is the late ‘60s, middle Alison is in the early ‘80s, and presumably big Alison is current in 2018.

“The older Alisons have made a mockup internet board of women role models that they are going to explain to small Alison in an effort to give her a chance to see their heroes,” he said.

Another challenge is that the play, told in scenes, isn’t linear.

“It completely moves around in time,” Ewen said. “If you see the kids out there, you know it’s when they’re little. The parents have the hardest job in transit between the time eras, but I think the audience will figure it out based on which Alison is on stage — and the conversations change in the scene.”

The adult Alison offers commentary throughout, but isn’t really a narrator.

“She doesn’t really lead us down the path,” Ewen said. “It’s her quest to try to figure out what happened with her father. She discusses the clues as she finds them, as her memories roll by. It’s really about how it affects her.”

Still, she is actually reliving her life.

“It’s also about older Alison trying to not get sucked into the gravitas of emotion of the scene she’s witnessing, with varying degrees of success,” Ewen said.

“This is an extremely well-written play,” Ewen said. “Lisa Kroon did an amazing job of translating an unlikely candidate for a musical. A narrative about somebody coming out in 1980, and being very confused in her family relationships, and her father’s dilemma, wouldn’t usually be a subject for a musical.”

And, there certainly is a lesson.

“You want to be aware when members of your family are in trouble,” Ewen said. “You want to be inclusive of diverse elements in your family. Families are strong and can survive a lot more than we think.”

In conjunction with the production, a condensed version of the UVM Fleming Museum installation of Bechdel’s exhibit “Self-Confessed!” will be on display at Manchester Community Library July 12-28. Bechdel will be on hand for a special meet-and-greet and book-signing reception 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday, July 14.

Weston Playhouse

Weston Playhouse Theatre Company presents “Fun Home,” the musical by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, July 5-28 at Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm, 705 Main St. in Weston. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, plus 2 p.m. matinees Wednesday and Saturday. Tickets are $47, $23.50 for students, $40 and $20 for the July 5 preview; call 802-824-5288, or go online to www.westonplayhouse.org.