Only a few minutes into Fun Home, we know how the story will end. Adapted from Alison Bechdel's graphical memoir, the musical tries to make sense of the cartoonist's complicated relationship with her closeted gay father, Bruce (Robert Mammana). Our narrator is present-day Bechdel (Allison Mickelson), who explains the play's fate in the first scene. "He killed himself and I became a lesbian cartoonist," she says.
Propelled by goofy, singalong anthems, Fun Home switches between three different stages of Bechdel's life. There's Alison (Aida Valentine) growing up in the funeral home where her father enforced heteronormativism on his daughter. There's Alison at college (Sara Masterson), who transforms from nervous and slumped shouldered, to belting out love songs as she discovers her sexuality and falls for a classmate named Joan (Kristen DiMercurio). Then there's Alison the narrator, the successful cartoonist behind Dykes to Watch Out For, and who's attempting to understand her father through jumbled memories.
The show premiered on Broadway in 2015 and won multiple Tony awards that same year. It went on tour for the first time last October, but Portland Center Stage is staging its own production. PCS' production is so intimate and charming, it's hard to imagine Fun Home on a giant Broadway stage. The set is relatively minimal. Though the scenes in the funeral home are fleshed out with vintage furniture, Alison's college dorm is just a desk and a bed.
At the end of the play, Bruce remains a mystery to Alison. Where did he go late at night? Was it a gesture of solidarity when he mailed her a novel with a lesbian protagonist? Why did he call her into his embalming room when she was little just to ask her to hand him scissors?
But Fun Home's yearning for understanding imbues even the most uncertain and difficult moments with tenderness. In one scene, Bruce shames Alison into wearing a dress instead of a pair of Converse and a boyish T-shirt to a family party. "Do you want everyone talking about you behind your back?" he asks her. Through Alison's self-discovery, we can see Bruce's misguided hope of sparing his daughter from the pain he feels, while he remains deprived of the freedom she eventually finds.
SEE IT: Fun Home is at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave., pcs.org. 7:30 pm Tuesday-Sunday, noon Thursday, 2 pm Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 22-Oct. 22. $25-$70.