An early song in Fun Home, the musical adapted from cartoonist Alison Bechdel's autobiographical graphic novel, concerns surfaces: namely, pristine surfaces in the home ornately and obsessively decorated by Bechdel's father Bruce. But the show is more preoccupied by what lies beneath the surface — including Bruce's closeted sexuality, his daughter's growing awareness of her own, the truth about a death and the painful compromises one family makes.
"Everything is balanced and serene," the Bechdels sing, polishing mirrors and antiques. "Like chaos never happens, if it's never seen."
Fun Home opens Sept. 27 as a joint production between Southern Rep Theatre and New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) Stage Company. In the show, time shifts back and forth to reveal the layers of the main character Alison's complicated family history and coming-out story. Actors Chrissy Bowen, Taylor Lewis and Camille Burkey portray Alison at different ages and often occupy the stage simultaneously, creating the sense of time refracting and collapsing on itself. The eldest Alison frequently reacts to and comments on events from the past while writing (and then revising, and then scratching out) captions for future cartoon panels.
"It's almost like cinema in front of your eyes. It just flows back and forth," director Blake Coheley says. "[But the venue] is so intimate. You can get right up close; you can see the actors sweat."
Coheley worked closely with the three women who portray Alison, using table work to adjust gestures, posture and vocal nuance to help audiences translate the character as the same person. As the show progresses, it folds in Alison's life as she grows up, including her relationships with her mother Helen (Leslie Castay, the real-life mother of "small Alison") and her first girlfriend (Keyara Milliner).
But the crux of the show is the dynamic between Alison and her father, played by Jason Dowies.
"[Bruce is] just afraid that [Alison] is going to grow up like him, and that scares him," Coheley says. "We've come a long way from the '70s and early '80s, just having conversations about being gay, let alone having gay parents."
The set is meant to depict the elaborateness of the Bechdel family's world, including the funeral home business they owned while Alison was growing up. The funeral home ("fun home") is the site of moments both poignant and hilarious, including the first time Alison sees a dead body and a pull-out-all-the-stops dance number by the Bechdel children staged on and around a coffin.
Bechdel created the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. She published her graphic novel/comic memoir Fun Home in 2006, and it drew acclaim for its frank treatment of lesbian and gay issues. It won several literary and comic prizes and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori adapted it for the stage in 2015, and the show won Tony awards in the Best Musical, Book, best lead actor, best direction and Best Score categories that year.
Coheley saw the show with its original cast in New York and was struck by the way it captivated a diverse crowd.
"It's a great coming-of-age story," he says. "The subject matter is intense. There's everything from suicide to homosexuality ... and we're singing and dancing about it."