Review: FUN HOME at Victory Gardens Theater

Review: FUN HOME at Victory Gardens Theater

Pictured: Hannah Starr, Danielle Davis, and Danni Smith. Photo by Liz Lauren.

By Erin Shea Brady

Part of the work of an art-maker is to keep the faith – to keep our heads above water, to stay invested and engaged when we want to hide away, when we’re tempted by that backup career in psychology or that full-time office job with benefits. It’s a tall and wonderful order, to give up stability in order to unpack and understand our most intense emotional experiences, to relate to each other profoundly, for catharsis and social justice and communion and all the rest.

Sometimes there’s a little too much time in between those artistic catalysts, and sometimes, for a minute, I forget why I do the thing. And then I see a show like Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s FUN HOME, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, and I think, “yes. This. This is why. Remember this, remember this, remember this.”

I went into this production blind, knowing little about the show. Having seen the extraordinary cast at Victory Gardens, I’m glad that this was my first experience with writer/cartoonist/protagonist Bechdel’s moving family portrait.

(A little feminist trivia: Bechdel, played by Danni Smith, is also known for co-creating the Bechdel-Wallace test, which asks whether works of fiction feature two women having a conversation about something other than a man. Smith is the co-founder of Firebrand Theater, the first Equity feminist musical theater company. Their inaugural production, LIZZIE, opens this November. More of this, please.)

In her turn as Alison, Smith sorts through the supreme confusion that we all grapple with as we try to unpack our past and move forward. We grow up. We face adversity. And again and again, we dismantle and reframe our own narrative. Smith’s performance is tremendously heartfelt. We feel her longing to go back and comfort the younger versions of herself, while also seeking her own consolation. She faces an aching reality: Everyone has pain. There’s no good guy or bad guy. There is abuse and manipulation and anger and heartache. There are dehumanizing political and social realities. There are mistakes. We make each other small when we feel small. But there is also humanity. We do the best we can with the tools we have. There is no one satisfying, universal narrative that makes it easier to see how our trauma, whatever that may be, continues to inform our lives beyond childhood.

As college-aged “Medium” Alison, up-and-comer Hannah Starr is as gifted a vocalist as she is a comedienne. Starr is a joy to watch – you won’t want her to leave the stage. Her younger counterpart, Stella Rose Hoyt (Small Alison) also has some serious pipes! She handles the difficult material (thematic and vocal alike) with ease. Rob Lindley (Bruce Bechdel), McKinley Carter (Helen Bechdel), and the very funny Danielle Davis (Joan) give strong supporting performances. Carter’s “Days and Days” is devastatingly beautiful, and Lindley’s performance gets stronger as the play goes on, culminating in a powerful end.

There are certainly moments, especially early on, where the production falls into the common musical theater trap of missed acting opportunities in favor of strong, performative vocals. Some early character-defining moments could have been mined for more specificity and bolder choices. A few big plot points go unearned — disappointing, given the level of talent involved — but, ultimately, this cast pulls through and their recovery is masterful.

I feel indebted to these performers, and to Tesori, Kron and Bechdel, for their willingness to dig deep, to “go there,” to tell this story with heart and truth and strength. I highly encourage you to buy your tickets today. It’s a rare moment, and you won’t want to miss it.

About author

Erin Shea Brady

Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.