There’s a well-known poem by Philip Larkin titled “This Be the Verse.” The opening goes: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do./ They fill you with the faults they had/ And add some extra, just for you.” It encapsulates perfectly the sometimes fraught relationship we have with our parents as we navigate our way through the formation of our own identities.
Fun Home, a musical based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic novel memoir, does a lot of excavating of this most primary of relationships. Alison is shown at three key points in her life: as a child, as a young woman starting college and as an adult grappling with her past. The key figure in her life is her father, Bruce, a looming, mercurial man whom the young Alison struggles to please and the older Alison tries to understand.
Fun Home is what the Bechdel children called their house, which was also a funeral home (Bruce had many avocations, among them funeral director, historic home restorer and English teacher). It is the site of Alison’s happy memories with her brothers and her idolization of her father, but it is also beautiful trove of dark secrets. As it turns out, Bruce is a closeted homosexual with a penchant for young boys. Only when Alison is in college and a recently out lesbian does all this come to the fore, shattering a lifetime of illusion. The revelation is followed by Bruce’s tragic suicide.
From there, it is a backpedaling through memories, unfinished conversations and missed connections, a life unfolding through songs that are sometimes funny and always heartbreaking. Her father’s identity is inextricably linked with hers, and Alison will spend her adult life untangling this helix bound by genealogy and geography. In the song “Maps,” an adult Alison tries to contain her understanding of her father and of herself on her sketchpad, filtered through her memories as a young girl: “Maps show you what is simple and true/ Try laying out a bird’s-eye view/ Not what he told you, just what you see/ What do you know that’s not your dad’s mythology?”
While the subject matter is heavy (and timely), the music in Fun Home stays with you long after the curtains come down. This touring company features stellar actors, notably the three Alisons—Alessandra Baldacchino, Abby Corrigan and Kate Shindle. It is autobiographical, yes, but many of the themes have universal resonance. We’ve all had that childlike wish of wanting to revise our personal history, especially our relationship with our parents. As children, we can’t yet comprehend that they have identities beyond their caregiving roles—that they have rich, interior lives that are surfeit of dark desires and unfulfilled dreams. It is only when we are adult ourselves that we realize that our unlived lives can sometimes exist in the shadow of our lived ones.
Fun Home plays through January 8. Tickets $29-$127, thesmithcenter.com