The story of one can relate to many. That’s the binding truth at the heart of Circle Theatre’s Fun Home.
It’s based on the true story of Alison Bechdel, a lesbian graphic novelist whose father dies unexpectedly, and the many ups and downs of growing up, getting along with family and discovering who you really are.
Directing this unique musical is Jolene Frankey, who’s excited to bring a show that really touches on heavy topics, but can relate to every single person in the audience.
“It’s so important to the LGBT community because you see Allison’s coming out process from the time she’s little,” Frankey said. “It’s the first time that the leading lady is a lesbian (in a Broadway musical), and there’s no question about that. It’s important, because we’ve never seen that before.
“We’re watching the empowering story of Alison coming out, but you also have to watch this heartbreaking story of Bruce (Alison’s father), who is gay and chooses to live his whole life in the closet.”
The story consists mainly of flashbacks, moving from present day 43-year-old Alison to younger versions of her during various big moments of her life.
“Maybe not everybody has been affected by suicide, or doesn’t have a family member that is LGBTQ, but you understand those familial relationships,” Frankey said. “Some parts of it are really hard to watch and you feel that pain, and can relate that to parts of your life. And some parts are so beautiful, to see the way that they learn to cope and depend on each other to the best of their ability.”
The show’s lead is local actress and comedian Eirann Betka, who not only relates to the story in many ways, but also has taken a backseat from theatrical acting for a few years. Jason Morrison plays the part of Bruce, Alison’s father.
“Jason and I are both part of the LGBTQ community … and there’s so many parallels that we’ve already seen and talked about that it’s painful sometimes to think about it or to see other people go through it,” Betka said. “It’s separating those two while still giving that honor to Alison’s feelings, too, because that’s what she went through as well.”
Two years ago, Betka saw a performance of Fun Home in New York City and was so moved that it rekindled her love for theater. After being off the theater stage for six years, she’s making time in her busy schedule of comedy gigs to take the lead in Grand Rapids’ first production of Fun Home.
“It’s done in a full circle, so the audience sees every angle and everything,” Betka said. “So even when you’re seeing the back of someone’s head, you can still see how much emotion they’re putting in their body. And it’s such a cool reminder as an actor that your acting needs to be 360 (degrees).”
Not only is the acting shown full-circle, but the story is told that way as well.
“Which I think is part of the beauty of the storytelling as well, because you get to see each person’s perspective,” Frankey said. “While it may look like (Bruce) is failing as a parent and not giving his daughter the support and love that she needs, you see enough that you understand he’s unfortunately doing the best that he can.
“Everybody’s just doing the best they can and sometimes that just isn’t enough.”
Frankey and Betka agreed that this truth is hard to bear for most people, and they hope that by seeing this story told onstage, people and families will understand one another better, and just be more patient and truthful in general. Through it all, they said, theater is the vessel by which stories are told and much can be celebrated.
“It can be a celebration of humanity, or love, or freedom, or revolution — in this case, hopefully they see that theater is simply a story just like theirs,” Betka said.
“There are so many heterosexual stories that are told, and that is just one slice of humanity,” she said. “It’s the same way that we need to see more ethnic diversity on the stage. We need to see that same diversity in all of our storytelling.”
By having this show in a relatively conservative area like West Michigan, Circle Theater appears to be making a push to encourage diversity.
“I feel like it’s a turning point not just for Circle, but for the theater community and Grand Rapids in general that we’re able to highlight and celebrate our stories,” Frankey said.
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