If you care about gender diversity in film, you may have come across the Bechdel Test at some point. It was trotted out some 30 years ago by the cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, and it's a damn clever way to judge if a flick takes its women characters seriously. According to the test, a movie must meet three requirements: It must have at least two women in it (who have names), they must speak to each other, and they must talk about something other than men.
People have actually applied the Bechdel Test to films and found that only about half get a passing grade, which tells you something. And it also indicates that Alison Bechdel is a fascinating person, as is revealed in Fun Home, the innovative and gripping musical now at Playhouse Square. Based on Bechdel's graphic eponymous memoir, set in the family's home which doubled as a funeral parlor, this densely layered piece with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron is a triumph of theatrical invention and execution.
The entire story is laid out with brutal directness early on, when grownup Alison says, "My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself. And I became a lesbian cartoonist." But after that revelation, the truth of this dysfunctional family is revealed with the kind of gentle precision that archeologists employ, softly brushing off the dust of years from the artifacts they hold gently in their hands.
As Kron's words and Tesori's music weave seamlessly together, we see how Alison grew up in a home that was treated like a museum by her dad Bruce. He's a schoolteacher by trade and a punctilious restorer of their historical home by avocation, and his insistence on absolute perfection hides the chaos he is experiencing with his own sexual orientation.
Sliding back and forth between three separate time periods, the play is never confusing since different actresses portray Alison at these three stages in her life. Small Alison is enamored of playing "airplane" with her father, as he lays on his back while she soars above him propped up on the soles of his feet while she sings, "I wanna put my arms out and fly ... like Superman up in the sky!" Even then, though, when Alison is small, there are hints of darker times to come as Bruce fetishizes his antiques and ignores the needs of Alison and her two younger brothers. And particularly those of his wife Helen.
Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan) is away at Oberlin College and just getting fully acquainted with her own lesbian identity when she meets a young woman named Joan. Soon, Joan is all that for Alison, as expressed in the hilarious, "I'm Changing My Major (to Joan)." The older Alison is often observing these scenes of her younger self, exploring and discovering, and it is done so subtly by director Sam Gold that it never seems intrusive or obvious.
The songs in Fun Home are actually a revelation, since they are so natural to the ear, with interruptions and backtracking just as in normal conversation. Even so, there is a full range of emotion displayed, from the childish fun of "Come to the Fun Home," when all the kids create their version of a TV commercial for the family business, to the casually heartbreaking "Helen's Etude." In that song, Bruce is putting the moves on a young guy he's hired to do yard work while his wife and kids are in the next room.
As the shards of Alison's memory come back, they all begin to flow into one direction. We see that Alison's sexual interests began early when Small Alison, played by an excellent Alessandra Baldacchino, sings her 9-year-old ode to a butch delivery woman in "Ring of Keys." And as events lead up to Bruce's suicide, we see the toll these secrets have imposed on the family, especially in Helen's lament, "Days and Days," sung with perfect emotional resonance by Susan Moniz.
In the two central roles of Bruce and grown Alison, Robert Petkoff and Kate Shindle excel. Petkoff gives Bruce a sort of shlubby affect which works well against his character's almost manic desire for perfection. And Petkoff nails each of his singing assignments, particularly his last effort, "Edges of the World," in which Bruce feels his own life collapsing under him, like a ruined building unable to be restored. Shindle's grown Alison, almost detached until the end, keeps the story moving ahead to its inexorable conclusion.
Last year, Fun Home won the Tony Award for best musical, and this is one award that is very much deserved, since it takes two genres — comics and memoir — and boldly fuses them into something new and remarkable. And shattering.Fun Home
Through Oct. 22 at Connor Palace, 1615 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.com