‘An unlikely musical’: Director of ‘Fun Home’ shares uncommon circumstances of upcoming musical

That “Fun Home” exists at all seems improbable.

It’s an award-winning musical adaptation of a widely acclaimed graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel that grapples with some of the weightiest topics imaginable — suicide, sexuality, complicated parental relationships, grief — with candor and acerbic humor. It’s largely set against the backdrop of a family mortuary business.

The play tells a series of vignettes from Bechdel’s life, narrated by middle-aged Bechdel — Big Alison in the vernacular of “Fun Home.” It focuses on formative memories from when Bechdel was 10— Little Alison — and Bechdel’s first year at college — Medium Alison.

“This is such an unlikely musical,” said Hannah Wolf, a longtime Perseverance Theatre collaborator who is directing the upcoming production of “Fun Home.”

This photo shows Hannah Wolf, who grew up in Juneau and is directing Perseverance Theatre’s upcoming production of “Fun Home.” Wolf said while the musical deals with some dark themes, it is an extremely funny play with excellent songs. (Courtesy Photo)

This photo shows Hannah Wolf, who grew up in Juneau and is directing Perseverance Theatre’s upcoming production of “Fun Home.” Wolf said while the musical deals with some dark themes, it is an extremely funny play with excellent songs. (Courtesy Photo)

But if the odds of the celebrated adaptation’s existence are long, the circumstances surrounding its arrival in Juneau seem even more remote.

Wolf, who grew up in Juneau, returned home two weeks before rehearsals for “Fun Home” because of the death of her father, Steve, of Parkinson’s disease and related dementia. The death of Bechdel’s father, Bruce, factors significantly into the plot of “Fun Home,” and Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir, “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.”

“This show for me, right now, is about how do I use this story to take a look at my relationship with my own father,” Wolf said.

She expressed disbelief that a lesbian woman returned to her childhood home following the death of her father to direct a play that in part depicts a lesbian woman returning to her childhood home and coming to terms with a parent’s death.

[Children’s author returns with a whale tale]

Wolf said by day she’d find herself going through her father’s letters, and at night, she’d direct scenes of characters doing the same.

Despite some similarities, many aspects, including timelines, relationship dynamics and circumstances surrounding the death differ significantly between Wolf’s life and the play.

“There are similar footprints but very different paths,” Wolf said. “One of the footprints that is similar to the Big Alison story is art as healing.”

That link isn’t the only uncommon thing about Perseverance Theatre’s production of “Fun Home.”

The musical’s arrival on stage on Douglas Island was postponed by dozens of months by the COVID-19 pandemic, and most of the cast from those shelved shows will be performing in the 2022 ones.

Wolf noted that’s typically not the case when a project gets delayed, but said the cast was determined to see it through.

Originally, the play was slated to cap Perseverance Theatre’s 2019-2020 season, but shutdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic began as rehearsals were ramping up.

“We’re right at the exact moment we were last time for the shutdown,” Wolf said. “It’s incredibly cathartic.”

While most cast members for those postponed shows are back for the April 22-May 8 run, Wolf said it’s not exactly akin to picking up exactly where they left off.

Actors have had an extended period to live with and reflect on their characters, and the pandemic added additional context to the way artists approach their craft.

“This very strange two-year gap has really helped teach me how do you put your heart on stage, how do you put your guts on stage, how do you show a mirror to your audience,” Wolf said. “I just don’t have time or space to not be authentic.”

Despite that, Wolf said there are also moments when returning to the same script does make it feel as if nothing has changed, and rehearsals began with the cast being aware they could pull off a musical that contains a lot of humor, as well as pivots to challenging material that requires intense vulnerability.

It’s been a surreal experience, but one Wolf said she is glad to be part of.

“It’s been really lovely,” Wolf said. “I’ll be processing it for years.”

• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.

Know & Go

What: “Fun Home”

When: 7:30 p.m. April 22, April 23, April 27, April 28, April 29, May 5, May 6 and May 7. 4 p.m. April 24, May 1 and May 8. There is also a pay-as-you-wish preview scheduled for 7:30 p.m. April 20.

Where: Perseverance Theatre, 914 3rd St., Douglas

Admission: Tickets cost $40. The performance scheduled for Wednesday, April 27, is a pay-as-you-wish show. Attendees must provide proof of vaccination and wear masks indoors, according to Perseverance Theatre’s website. Tickets can be purchased online through https://www.ptalaska.org/ticketing/. Box office hours are 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Monday-Friday. It can be reached at (907)463-8697 or by emailing boxoffice@ptalaska.org.

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