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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Of all the scenes in Fun Home that articulate the consequences of living in a collapsing family, the one with Helen's piano is arguably the most beautiful.
That might seem like a paradox, making something lovely out of something terrible, but contradictory emotions are the bedrock of this new musical, now at the Public Theater.
Based on the landmark graphic novel by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, Fun Home follows the true story of Bechdel's relationship to her father, Bruce, who was an English teacher, the manager of a funeral home, secretly gay, and given to inappropriate conduct with the neighbors. When Bechdel was in college and realizing that she herself was gay, she learned about her father's double life, and then in the middle of her freshman year, he committed suicide by stepping in front of a truck.
By the end of the graphic novel, Bechdel makes a cautious, bittersweet peace with her father's life and his impact on their family. The musical, with a score by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, captures all the shades of that journey. There are scenes of enormous joy (a teenage Alison falls in love for the first time) and enormous ache (adult Alison recalls her last conversation with her father), and there are scenes that demonstrate how a family can keep functioning in the face of a shattering secret.
Which brings us to Helen, Alison's mother, played by Judy Kuhn. She knows who Bruce is, and she's been suffering his verbal abuse for years. But she also loves her family and uses her art (music, acting) to handle what she can't control. All these threads come together when Bruce has a young man alone in the library while the children watch TV in the next room. As we watch Bruce's seduction and the children's oblivion, we also see Helen play a gentle tune on the piano. It's obvious that Helen knows what's happening, but at the same time, the music she's making lovely music.
"The thing that's not spoken about comes into the house, and everybody tries to continue the routine," Kuhn says. "By playing the piano, Helen is accompanying the thing that's going on in the library, so I'm implicitly there, but I'm continuing to do one of the things I do to cope in the house, which is play music."
That speaks to the challenge of Kuhn's role: Instead of blowout rages, she delivers subtle indications. "There's this unspoken tension about what happens behind the scenes, but still, everybody plays their role and doesn't confront what nobody wants to confront," she says. "We're always trying to find the right rhythm of those moments. That's the sort of thing they're looking for in the first part of the play---to show the ways the family functions, up until the point where it just can't anymore."
Of course, you don't hire Kuhn, who recently finished a celebrated turn in Sondheim's Passion at Classic Stage Company, without giving her a song to sing, and eventually, Helen does get to express herself in a heart-heavy ballad that she sings to her daughter. Kuhn has been part of Fun Home's development for two years, and she recalls that when her song finally arrived, it brought a new clarity to Helen's place in the show.
She says, "Jeanine kept saying during the course of that workshop two years ago, 'I'm writing you a song! It's coming, it's coming, it's coming!' It came two days before we did our first presentation for everyone at the Public, and that was a little scary. But it was certainly worth the wait. It helped us understand where Helen ends up."
Judy Kuhn's latest album, All This Happiness, was released earlier this summer
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus