After President Trump fired James Comey, on Tuesday, May 9, the newly-axed head of the FBI disappeared abruptly from public view, a self-imposed exile that lasted days. The following Saturday, Comey and his wife were spotted attending a matinee performance of Fun Home in Washington, an outing that raised eyebrows throughout the capital. Some were surprised by how quickly he’d abandoned his low-profile stance, others by his theatrical taste, Fun Home being the sort of show that has been labeled, somewhat reductively, as a “lesbian feminist musical.”
But it was Comey’s reaction to the 2015 Tony award-winner that provoked the most comment. Visiting the company backstage afterwards, he appeared “visibly moved” by what he’d seen, according to cast members’ accounts. Indeed, the six-foot-eight-inch FBI man and his wife were witnessed “wiping away the tears,” noted one Fun Home producer, and Kate Shindle, its star, said that “both said they were really emotionally affected by the show.”
The first word sung in the musical is daddy, and it’s tempting to draw a line between Comey and Bruce (Robert Petkoff), the still-waters-run-deep patriarch at the center of Fun Home. After all, the show (which is based on a graphic novel-memoir by Alison Bechdel, and features a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, with music by Jeanine Tesori) imagines Bruce as a “brilliant, enigmatic father”—per the show’s website—who devotes much of his time to keeping secrets from everyone around him, secrets that ultimately prove to be his undoing.
But Fun Home has a genius for avoiding easy explanations, even as it spends 90 tense, intermission-less minutes trying to figure out why Bruce Bechdel committed suicide at age 43, throwing himself in front of a moving truck. Even if you tease out all the competing forces behind a fateful decision—Bruce’s, Comey’s, anyone’s—the decision itself remains a mystery. Seek explanation if the seeking gives you solace, Fun Home seems to say, but don’t imagine that you’ll ever get to the truth.
Given such sloganeering, you will not be surprised to hear that there is a great sadness to Fun Home, but that description seems reductive too. A memory play with the adult Alison (Shindle) in the Tom Wingfield role, Fun Home renders the past as a collection of half-remembered episodes, snippets of conversation, and unremarkable moments that don’t quite seem so unremarkable in retrospect. There’s Bruce lifting Small Alison off the ground (Carly Gold, giving a performance beyond her years), her arms outstretched in superhero-ness, or putting on shows in the living room with her brothers (Luké Barbato Smith and Henry Boshart), climbing in and on a casket there—the family runs a funeral home, or fun home, as the Bechdels euphemize it. We see Medium Alison (a humorous, finely-shaded turn by Abby Corrigan) accepting her nascent same-sex attraction with relative ease in the 1980s, and we see the opposite in her father, a gay man closeted and consumed by self-loathing. Alison’s mother Helen (Susan Moniz) is captured both at the moment she stops denying her husband’s sexuality, and the moment she struggles to accept her daughter’s.
What, you may wonder, do such people have to sing about? Lots of things, actually, and while the Bechdels’ ebullience rarely rises to the level of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” Tesori’s score is powerful in a different way. Its rapid shifts of melody and meter contribute mightily to Fun Home’s documentary-like depiction of family life. So do Kron’s lyrics, which favor meaning over easy rhymes, and heartbreaking eruptions within the quotidian grind, as in the song “Days and Days,” which recounts all the “lunches and car rides and shirts and socks and grades and piano—and no one clocks the day you disappear.” To be sure, such sudden shifts magnify the awfulness of Fun Home, but they can also leaven it with humor. “My dad and I both grew up in the same, small Pennsylvania town,” says Alison at one point. “And he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself. And I… became a lesbian cartoonist.”
This being a national touring company, the production values, performances and musicianship (a six-member team planted at the back of the stage) are uniformly excellent, thereby allowing the subtle majesty of Fun Home to bloom fully onstage. In the production’s sure hands—and especially Kate Shindle’s—we somehow learn to accept the essential unknowability of those we love the most, even as we champion the self-actualized life and mourn its opposite.