Fun Home

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday September 26, 2017

Alison (Allison Mickelson), Medium Alison (Sara Masterson), Small Alison (Aida Valentine) and Bruce Bechdel (Robert Mammana)
Alison (Allison Mickelson), Medium Alison (Sara Masterson), Small Alison (Aida Valentine) and Bruce Bechdel (Robert Mammana)  

A woman unpacks a box, examining each dusty item as her memory wanders back through their origins, scenes from her childhood and family coming to life onstage. In her faithful unpacking, she seeks clarity in her memories, which are subject to the cloud of years and hurt and confusion, to better understand her father and maybe, by extension, herself.

At Portland Center Stage, the musical "Fun Home" bares one family's unspoken disappointments and secrets and injuries with loving humor. It is the story of her longing to connect with her father, and the disconnection created by his dishonesty.

This layered, complex story traverses moments in Alison's childhood, her college-age realization that she is a lesbian, coming out to her parents, finding out her father is gay, and her father's suicide. This painful history is told with grace and tenderness, with music and lyrics aching with regret, but all laced somehow with wit and fondness.

The Armory's production of "Fun Home" brings together this work of recreated memories and song with some gorgeous performances and deft and elegant staging. Director Chris Coleman leads the cast through this difficult unpacking with his characteristic dignity and respect for the story.

Scenic Designer William Bloodgood set the show on a sparse set illuminated by large airborne panels with cartoon drawings of house exteriors, somewhat like Bechdel's drawings, that slide into place above and around the characters, indicating scenes. It's an engaging, interesting staging that serves to fix the live-action show in the visual aesthetic of a graphic novel.

This is a strong cast all around. Three performers deliver Alison at different ages. Aida Valentine is Small Alison, Sara Masterson is Medium Alison, and Allison Mickelson is Alison (adult). Masterson's thrilling voice stands out, as does Mickelson's performance as the center of the family of stories.

Faith Sandberg plays Alison's mother, Helen. The one complaint about the play is that it gives short shrift to Bechdel's mother, who was shown in the book to have been pursuing her Master's degree while raising three kids and performing in theater, but here looks to be little more than a bustling homemaker. But Sandberg imbues Helen with the weary defeat of unhappy marriage. Her performance of "Days and Days" is gorgeous and full of anguish.

As Alison's father, Bruce, Robert Mammana has charisma and charm, with a lurking anger fitting the character. That liquid-caramel voice makes him especially attractive and adds complexity. The casting of him with the lovely Sandberg as Helen heightens the effect of the appearance of the perfect couple, and the couple's preference for appearance over reality.

Alison's brothers, played by Theo Curl and Karsten George, add some levity, and the "Fun Home Commercial" the kids' record is especially entertaining. Curl, George and Valentine deliver a full-on '70s retro performance that shows exactly how fun it can be to grow up in a funeral home.

Alison Bechdel wrote the acclaimed "Fun Home" graphic-novel/memoir that was turned into this resonant musical to make some kind of sense of her relationship with her father. Bechdel restored her memories as lovingly and faithfully as her father restored their historic home, carefully revealing details that showed the true character of their family.

This musical is a chance for us to share in her process, to witness her growing understanding, and to have compassion for our own process of unpacking memories. You'll never have so much fun with someone else's old "junk" as you do at "Fun Home."

"Fun Home" runs through October 22 at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW Eleventh Ave, Portland, OR 97209. For tickets or information, call 503-445-3700 or visit

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.