Sunday, October 29, 2017

On Fun Home and Gaining Consciousness

(Posting in September was impossible. The girls had a tough beginning to 7th and 9th grades and I've been running a low grade fever of depression since November 8, 2016. But Friday afternoon had some leaked news of charges that brought a ray of hope and last night was an inspiration.)

I took my fifteen year old Mia to the musical Fun Home at Victory Gardens Theater last night. We had both read Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel and loved it and I couldn’t wait to share with her the moving experience I had had watching the national tour show last year. I got to see the gorgeous (sing it, “GOR-geous!”) Kate Shindel in the lead but Mia would have a more intimate show and one directed by Chicago great Gary Griffin to boot.

But it’s not really a kid show and Mia was by far the youngest person in the theater who was not on stage so I suffered a pang of doubt whether it was the right choice for her. I glanced over at her a couple of times in the dark but I couldn’t tell if she was into it. Although the funeral home advertisement song “Come to the Fun Home” by the three sweet actors playing small Alison and her brothers is a total Brady Bunch/Jackson 5 style joy, there’s a challenging patch near the end with the penultimate tragedy songs, “Days and Days” sung by Alison’s mother about a wasted life married to closeted gay man and then Alison’s father’s “Edges of the World” (“so much damage...why am I standing here?”) sung in the moments before he steps in front of a truck.

But Mia got it, she got it.

“They shouldn’t have clapped after that song,” she said about the intense “Edges” and I said, “Yeah, it needed a moment of silence, when we're still in the story, before we praised the performance,” and she said, “yeah” and I was so happy she understood.

And back home, when we were retelling the experience to Nora and Randy, who had happily stayed home cozy on the couch for the Nebraska win, both Mia and I crowed and laughed about the manic David Cassidy/Partridge Family fantasy number “Raincoat of Love” (“Everything’s alright, babe, when we’re together/’Cause you are like a raincoat made out of love/Magic shield of love protecting me from bad weather”) and I cried all over again because the pain and the funny are so intertwined in a song that interrupts parents fighting and drowns out their awful words and I know by god something about blessed escape from awful reality into the sunny silliness of 70’s tv and its music.

Because that is it right there, the reason I am drawn again and again to this show, a musical about an utterly unique life that creates an experience so universal my breath is taken away with its familiarity. Our lead is a lesbian with a closeted and withdrawn yet talented yet criminal yet anguished father in the strangest of settings, a funeral home for God’s sake, and it thrusts me into consideration of my own need to forgive my father, to give his memory honor and “balance” as playwright Lisa Kron names it in the final line.

And in the joyous songs “Ring of Keys,” and “Changing My Major,” I see myself again, and cry with the recognition. The child and the teenager who sing these songs are discovering a reflection of their identity in the world for the first time and their feelings of relief and recognition make them burst into song. “Can you feel my heart saying ‘hi?’” sings little Alison seeing a butch lesbian for the first time; “I’m dizzy, I’m nauseous, I’m shaky.../And my heart feels complete” sings Medium Alison after her first sexual experience. It’s so lovely and such a long time coming, I weep with their joy. “I know you; I know you” sings little Alison. Me too, little Alison, I know you too. I didn't need to come out of the closet but recognizing my strange self in my strange world did not come early.

Everyone enters the world with a single possession: a story.

I forget my singularity most of the time. I travel through my familiar world of home and work and pretty Wilmette neighborhood and beloved Chicago environs like the transparent eyeball of Emerson (and discovering this concept in my childhood within the pages of my older brother Ron’s American Lit textbook was a revelation both earthshaking and one I always associate with the sloping intersection of two suburban KC streets on the way to our YMCA swimming pool. Is this where I read the words? Or talked about them with my brother in the car?) until.

I travel through this familiar world until I remember the twisting coincidence that not only is my consciousness the only one I know (!) but this body from which I look out has a history unlike everyone else. I stay with this awareness that “I” is/am the same as “Cindy,” the person moving through this world, I try to stay in this weird awareness, thinking these thoughts, try to stay with the tilting vertigo and flushing strangeness, try to understand that “I am Cindy. I am the only one in the world who is inside my head,” fail to put the strangeness that is as large as my universe into words, wonder fleetingly if I could fall to insanity if I go too far, and then slip back into transparency.

Examining my life for ethicality, kindness and meaning is a piece of cake compared to this.

Perhaps it was all the reading, the blessed escape I found in that magical work: black and white shapes transformed into letters, into words, to meaning, to alternate worlds, to immersion within those worlds, within other consciousnesses. Peter in The Snowy Day, Adopted Jane, Laura of the Little House, Homer Price, Harriet the Spy, Francis Hodges Burnett’s orphans, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’s runaways, Narnia (they’re all dead!), Watership Down, The Tombs of Atuan, Algernon, Scarlett O’Hara, Stephen King, paperbacks ordered by the dozen from Scholastic book orders, pulp, trash, forgettable titles that created yet unforgettable pictures in my mind, their titles lost forever. I’ve seen the libraries toss out bags of battered books. All those worlds. Immersion into someone else's head was my pasttime and my relief. "You were always reading," says my cousin Jeanne. It was strange to her.

The adjective “understanding” is high praise to me; I try “thanks for your understanding” as a balm in bad news emails. As in, thank you not only for being patient with me, but with trying to understand what is going on. When the girls fight, I want them to understand each other, think about why her sister might be feeling bad today, the causal link between a sharp word and no breakfast or a disappointing test or a text from a classmate asking to shift their friendship to “back-up friends.” Yeah, that’s right. A child asked my seventh grader to be her “back-up” in case her other, preferred friends don’t come through. I am trying to be understanding myself. 

Here's a facinating video about the writing and adaptation process of Fun Home the graphic novel to Fun Home the musical with playwright Lisa Kron, who won a Tony for her work and Jeanne Tresorio, who wrote the score.