How refreshing — a queer coming-of-age play in which the hero(ine) is not a diva, the parents are not monsters, and people are never mean, even when they’re being cruel. Lisa Kron’s warm, funny, heartbreaking book (from the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel) for “Fun Home” accomplishes all this without being sentimental. That welcome tone of sincerity is replicated in her lyrics to Jeanine Tesori’s introspective songs, which sound like a human voice — the voice of a likable lesbian, played by three actresses at different stages of her life — being painfully honest with itself.
For kids growing up in a funeral home (or, as they endearingly perceive it, a “fun home”), eight-year-old Alison (an impish Sydney Lucas) and her two brothers seem remarkably well-adjusted. They even play hide and seek in the coffins, with no noticeable trauma. The problem child in this rural Pennsylvania household is their father, Bruce (in an unflinching perf from Michael Cerveris), a fastidious man who doesn’t entirely ignore his children but lavishes more attention on his Victorian house and antiques collections. (This claustrophobic setting is handled with restraint by set designer David Zinn and Ben Stanton, who did the subtle lighting.)
It goes right over the children’s heads that Daddy is gay, and so deeply closeted his clothes must reek of mothballs. But his wife, Helen (Judy Kuhn, giving a wrenching perf), is well aware of it, and at the right moment — a moving musical moment — she lets us know how unbearable it is to share her life with someone who is living a lie and can hardly bring himself to look at her. Under Sam Gold’s helming, Kuhn and Cerveris underplay the suffering, suggesting hidden depths to their unhappy characters.
There’s a strong narrative quality to Tesori’s literate songs, which means that every one seems to tell its own story, the way they do in the composer’s most celebrated work, “Caroline or Change.” Lucas (this kid is seriously cute) disarms us with little Alison’s musical fantasy of being a superhero who rescues the damsel in distress — and doesn’t have to wear a girly dress to a stupid party. In another giddy number, she sends up a cheer for a butch lesbian who swaggers into a diner swinging a powerful set of keys. Alexandra Socha is cute and coltish as Alison the college girl, who keeps bursting into exuberant song to celebrate her newfound lesbian identity.
Only Beth Malone gets musically short-changed as the adult Alison, a successful artist and a fulfilled woman, but still burdened with sad memories of her father, who lived an unhappy life of repression and killed himself shortly after she came out to her family. Although this introspective Alison gets to sing the most thoughtful songs, she seems to get no joy from her insights. Or maybe the point is that sometimes there is no joy.