TOOELE — On the closing night of their most recent production, Fun Home, Tooele Valley Theatre gathered a sold-out audience, and I was lucky enough to see something magical take shape. The actors sang and danced. The audience laughed and cried. And most importantly, a community was shaped.
Tooele Valley Theatre made a bold choice to produce Fun Home, the 2015 Tony Award winning musical based on a graphic-novel memoir of the same name. Tooele native and director Chad Henwood and his co-founders launched their company just last year, and with an ambitious but carefully planned season structure including educational offerings and outdoor summer Shakespeare. Fun Home is their springtime effort to bring contemporary or rarely produced productions to their town. With this production, they have already put Tooele Valley Theatre on the map as a company to keep an eye on.
In Fun Home, adapted by Lisa Kron (who wrote the book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (the composer), real-life cartoonist Alison Bechdel shares the intimate and messy details of growing up in circumstances that are at once incredibly specific and entirely relatable. Told in nonlinear scenes performed by “Small” and “Medium” Alison, the story focuses on the Bechdel family, Alison’s relationship with her enigmatic father, and her own “coming out” journey. The play culminates in the the havoc created by her father’s closeted life and his subsequent death by suicide.
I strongly applaud Tooele Valley Theatre’s choice to produce this beautiful show in a traditionally conservative community where issues like sexual abuse, and domestic violence may be shadowed in shame while visible LGBTQ community members may struggle for acceptance. After all, the popular perception, as the Bechdel family sings, is that “chaos never happens if it’s never seen.” It was thrilling to watch this show with an audience that was diverse in ages, sexual orientations and backgrounds.
Setting the action with the audience on three sides, director Chad Henwood invited the intimate and sold out house to feel like part of the complicated Bechdel family. Throughout the show I found my eyes drawn the audience full of queer couples holding hands, grandparents in cowboy boots, and high school students, all as invested and impacted by Alison’s journey as I was. I could see other audience member’s faces and feed off their reactions. This intimacy with other audience members provided comfort in difficult moments and permission to laugh at the absurd story of children being raised in a funeral parlor and playing in a coffin.
Collin Ray‘s simple set, with a few rolling furniture pieces, allowed the action to flow as seamlessly as Alison’s memories. Alison herself weaves among the action observing, taking notes, scribbling cartoons, and eventually affording herself the chance to confront her father in a way real life did not permit. I love few things more than when earnest effort and limited resources manage to sweep my critical concerns aside, and here, despite some ill-fitted costumes, a pre-recorded vocal track, and a few less than stellar vocals, I found myself enthralled by the performers.
Lucile Johnson as Alison, the narrator and protagonist, is confident and thoughtful, but also brave enough to embark on the difficult journey of literally drawing out her character’s memories. Johnson shines in the song “Maps” and also in moments of harmony with her character’s younger selves. Emily Henwood plays Middle Allison, on fire with self-discovery in her freshman year of college. Henwood is the standout of the show, with a thrilling voice and powerful expressions of vulnerability in scenes where she is paired with Henry Ballesteros as her father, Bruce, or AJ Gross as her girlfriend, Joan. Henwood’s moment of enlightenment and joy in “Changing My Major” is a magically infectious scene. Brianna Lyman as Helen Bechdel, Alison’s mother, is another highlight, especially with her gorgeous performance of the sorrowful “Days and Days.”
Despite a few rough edges, it is clear that everyone on stage is passionate about this story, the chance to tell it to their community, and that they gave everything they have to putting on a great show. Their belief in the story of Fun Home made me proud to be there to support them in turn. I look forward to my next opportunity to see what is happening at Tooele Valley Theatre.