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Review: Southern Rep stages a spellbinding Fun Home

Alison Bechdel’s musical memoir runs through Oct. 22

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Siblings often hold onto different memories of their family's experiences. Their varied perceptions of events often change as they mature and have their own adult experiences. Fun Home, currently being presented by Southern Rep and New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) Stage Company at NOCCA, is a musical memoir that explores one woman's retrospective of her idealized childhood family and gradually exposes inaccuracies as she grows into a college student, comes out as a lesbian and becomes a professional cartoonist.

  "I had a life I thought I understood," says adult Alison (Chrissy Bowen).

  Because Fun Home is such a personal story, its dramatization is bound to elicit widely different reactions. Based on a graphic novel memoir penned by Alison Bechdel, who grew up in the 1970s in a small town in Pennsylvania, the story focuses on the author's relationship with her father Bruce (Jason Dowies), a closeted gay man who never revealed his true persona. Alison wonders if she is nothing like her father or exactly like him. After becoming involved with a college classmate, Joan (Keyara Milliner), Alison hopes to receive emotional support from her parents, but Bruce avoids discussion and her mother (Leslie Castay) blurts out the truth about their marriage.

  Three actresses play Bechdel at different periods in her life. The story is told through the eyes of the adult Alison, who ostensibly is invisible onstage, observing her former selves. Though the performers are gifted, their personalities and appearances are dissimilar, diminishing the illusion that they are the same Alison. Camille Burkey, Castay's real-life daughter, is a spark of joy yearning for her father's attention, and Taylor Lewis a bright, young talent. Alison and her brothers Christian (Christian Collins) and John (Henry Morse) appear to experience a normal, carefree childhood, apart from playing games inside the funeral home their father runs.

  Bruce also teaches English in a high school and restores old homes. He stays busy but still finds time to rendezvous with young men. Several times, he says, "Not so bad, if I say so myself. I might still break a heart or two."

  Bruce insists on projecting the image of a perfect family, and the kids fall in line at his every beck and call. In the song, "Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue," the children boast how polished their lives are, but appearances are deceiving.

  Besides the constantly shifting family dynamics, what is spellbinding about Fun Home is its integration of nostalgic, emotional orchestration into the drama. A band plays behind a screen, weaving music into the scenes perfectly in sync with the singers.

  Under Blake Coheley's direction, Dowies is excellent as the inscrutable husband and father, and Castay shines as the long-suffering wife. Anyone who has had the experience of hiding an aspect of their personality or marrying someone very different from themselves will find this drama particularly meaningful.

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