Our parents will always be enigmas, at once the most familiar and mysterious people we'll ever encounter.
Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's Fun Home, a one-act musical based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel, tackles this quest to understand — at least a little bit — these people who raised us, while also dealing with the trials and tribulations of growing up.
This is accomplished by splitting the main character, Alison herself, into three different ages. Adult Alison (Leslie Marie Collins, solid and grounding) serves as the de facto narrator, welcoming the audience to "the house on Maple Avenue" where her father, mother, and two brothers navigate the daily 1970s grind.
By the way, the meticulously restored Victorian is also a funeral home — the titular "fun home," as the kids call it — and it plays a big part in messing with Alison's head.
Director Cheryl Denson keeps the pace brisk to feel as if you're hurtling toward a devastating conclusion instead of questioning why there isn't an intermission in the nearly two-hour-long show. Music director Isaac Leaverton and his offstage seven-piece band revel in the disco licks and groovy bass lines of Tesori's '70s-flavored score.
While Kron and Tesori inject some fun into the macabre setting, which is being staged at the Kalita Humphreys Theater by Uptown Players, with Partridge Family-style tunes that are boogied about by Small Alison (a remarkable Summer Stern) and co., there's an underlying sense of dread amid the bell bottoms.
That's because we learn early on that Alison's father, Bruce, died by suicide when she was in college. He was gay but could never fully admit it to himself, instead choosing to destroy his family through guilt and poor decisions, and tomboy Alison is slowly realizing that she's also a lesbian.
This revelation comes about when Medium Alison (Emily Truelove, in her impressive professional debut) befriends the confident Joan (Ashlie Whitworth), who's unapologetically a member of the college's gay union.
Through the open and accepting Joan, Alison discovers more about her true self. This in turn leads her to question her father's actions throughout the years, from lawn boys who seemed to hang around too much to his impromptu nights out that often ended in heartbreak for his wife, Helen.
Appropriately, we don't see much of Bruce's inner emotional life — he's purposefully kept at a distance from the audience. But Duke Anderson brings a lovely, soaring voice to the role, switching between fatherly facade and sudden, rage-filled outbursts with crackling energy.
We do, however, get a glimpse at what Helen is dealing with. Jennifer Kuenzer stops the show by cracking open her heart with the gut-wrenching song "Days," showing Alison the danger of ignoring truths for too long.
The answers might not be what Alison wants to hear, but they're what she needs to know. And we as the audience get to learn right along with her.
Uptown Players' production of Fun Home runs at the Kalita Humphreys Theater through August 29.