- By gentleguide
- On Fri 21 Sep 2018
Iowa Stage kicks off their second season next week with a production of Fun Home. Winner of the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical, it is a surprising show of emotional depth and richness of character. Told as a memory play, it is the true story of author/artist Alison Bechdel and her years growing up. We see her at three different ages, examining her own coming of age and her relationship with her family.
As Alison realizes her own awakening as a lesbian in a world where that status is slowly becoming more accepted, she also must learn to cope with her father’s struggles of dealing with his own closeted identity. Various moments are dramatized with a gradual understanding of how one’s life fits together, even if you don’t understand all the parts as they happen.
Rae Fehring plays Alison as an adult, looking back on her life and trying to understand her experiences. As she “remembers” her younger self, she’s actually working with two other actresses to play the same character. “I think one of the fantastic things about our Director, Katy Merriman, is that she has really made an effort to give every actor space to figure out his or her own character. So while we have talked about finding things that might be ‘signature Alison,’ Katy has not been at all prescriptive in that direction.”
“One thing that each of the Alisons does at some point,” she continues, “is take out her notebook or sketchbook and draw. You’ll notice at one point or another in the show, we all sit in kind of the same way when we do that. Poni Lejukole, who plays Middle Alison, has a very distinct delivery with a couple lines, and I’ve found that I have similar lines at various points in the show, so I’ve been listening to her cadence to try to replicate that as an Alison effect.”
Alison’s journey of self-discovery is notable, if only because Fun Home is one of the first mainstream musicals to seriously depict the path of a lesbian protagonist. “I think Fun Home is an amazing opportunity for a particular population of women and girls to be centered in a narrative,” says Fehring. “Lesbian, queer, gay, gender non-conforming… take your pick. In a place like musical theatre that has countless narratives that rely on the trope of ‘boy meets girl,’ to have a show that shares an experience (at least this particular one) of growing up and not having the language for the difference you feel, to finding that language and embracing it… it’s really refreshing to have that girl/woman’s story told.”
“Ring of Keys, a song in the show, absolutely captures the experience of SO MANY lesbian and/or gender non-conforming women I know. Being a little girl and seeing an adult who somehow reflects the difference you feel but as a child you don’t know how to even describe it. I cried literal tears the first time I ever heard that song.”
Fehring personally knows how important it is for a young person to be able to have the freedom to discover their individual self, especially in a society that seems far too focused on cultural norms and specific roles. She is the founder of Girls Rock! Des Moines, an organization that creates safe places for young women to find their own uniqueness.
“My motivation for founding Girls Rock! Des Moines was rooted in building community through music education for girls that had that feeling of being different. No, I don’t mean for girls who grow up to be lesbians. I mean just that feeling of not being cool enough, or smart enough, or tall enough, or skinny enough, or funny enough, or rich enough, or, or, or, or…. Girls need to have space to discover that their unique individual’s voices are significant. That whoever they are is 100% amazing and awesome. I tried to create a community where they could find their voices, share their stories and experience, and discover their significance through making music.”
That search for uniqueness, and acceptance of individual status, is paramount in Fun Home. Through Alison’s relationship with her father Bruce, we see two lives unfolding, each on their own search for understanding. And while they are very alike in some ways, they are very different in others. Bruce grew up in other circumstances, and made other choices, than his daughter Alison.
“I do think that Bruce would have clearly had a more difficult time coming out, and not just because of the events of his life. The show takes place in roughly the late 60’s, late 70’s, and early 2000’s. So, you can imagine that in the 50’s and 60’s Bruce would have faced a particularly negative experience had he come out. He also got married and had children at a time when divorce still was not that common – or, more specifically, was still socially unacceptable. So it’s not as if culturally or socially he felt anything but trapped in the life he chose.”
“I think that because Alison’s parents were fairly ‘liberal-minded, bohemian, intellectuals’ and even though it was the late 70’s, she had a bit more leeway. She was at Oberlin College for crying out loud! It was the first college in the country to admit women (1837) and African Americans (1835)! I was born in ’73, so I’m clearly no expert. I didn’t come out until I was 28 in 2001.”
“And to be clear, in 2018, LGBTQ people STILL face real negative consequences for living their authentic lives… so it’s not as if the fears or difficulties that come with being true to who you are have disappeared altogether. Parents still disown children, states still won’t let same-sex couples adopt, people face discrimination in the workplace, and even violence. Bruce’s inability to live his life authentically is still a thing that other people experience.”
Fehring herself has faced some of those fears in her own journey, one which now leads to the experience of Fun Home. She finds she can relate well to Alison (in her various forms) and understand Bruce’s situation as well. She’s found a place with this show that speaks volumes about her life and her place in it.
“I’m just really so honored to be a part of this production. I haven’t been on a stage in a very long time. The last time I was in a musical, I was pregnant with my now 21 year-old daughter. To return to the stage in this particular role is incredibly humbling as well as validating. Humbling, because I auditioned on a whim hoping to pass for a college student (I auditioned to play Joan). Validating because I get to tell Alison’s story, which is some ways my own story.”
Fun Home is presented by Iowa Stage at the Kum & Go Theatre at the Des Moines Social Club. Performances start September 28, and run through October 14. Tickets are available through the Iowa Stage website. The show is presented in partnership with OneIowa, and there will be talkbacks scheduled after performances discussing the themes of the show.
Photos courtesy of Iowa Stage Theatre Company. Original Artwork by Katelyn McBurney.