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CATCO’s Wrenching, Marvelous Fun Home Runs Through October 1

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford CATCO’s Wrenching, Marvelous Fun Home Runs Through October 1Sydney MacGilvray, left, Cari Meixner, right, Meg Odell and Peter Matthew Smith perform in CATCO’s production of Fun Home through Oct. 1 at the Vern Riffe Center, Studio Two, 77 S. High St. Photo by Chad DeBlasio.
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CATCO kicked off their 2017-18 season with a supernova this past week. A wrenching, marvelous production of Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori’s (music) adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home. Fun Home arrives in Columbus with the bar set high by the play’s pedigree racking up Tony, Lucille Lortel and Obie awards through its acclaimed Off-Broadway and Broadway runs. This production, directed by Steven C. Anderson, rises to and vaults over and around that bar.

Fun Home shows us the fire and drive of Alison (Cari Meixner), an adult cartoonist, to make art out of the raw material of her adolescence and her college awakening. At its heart is her relationship with her Father, Bruce (Peter Matthew Smith), who struggled with being gay as it cratered his relationship with her Mother, Helen (Kim Garrison Hopcraft). In Alison’s childhood, Bruce blows up at Small Alison (Sydney MacGilvray) and her brothers Christian (Henry Smith) and John (Hudson Mugler). Bruce vacillates between a desperation to urge his daughter toward normalcy and a recognition that makes him forget she’s not an adult yet. Both sides of Bruce’s personality come weighted down with narcissism and implied manic episodes.

If the little girl is the core of these memories – and childhood always is – and the adult contextualizes and grapples, 19-year-old Medium Alison (Meg Odell) is our eyes. Medium Alison learns to acknowledge and start up the road to accepting herself in college, with the help of her first girlfriend Joan (Jenny Case). Odell has the most straightforward character arc here and she soars with blistering comic timing and an empathy that echoes both Alison’s parents.

Odell sends glimmers of the artist she will be into the sky on her one “real” conversation with her father, the song “Telephone Wire” as she notices details of the sky while raging at her inability to change what everyone knows is coming next. A moment of incandescent bliss as she sings “I’m changing my major to Joan,” after their first night together, rings true with no sugar-coating or pandering. She subtly implies the gestures of MacGilvray’s Small Alison but shifted and mediated by what the years of adolescence wrought. She sets up the intensity and hard-won confidence of Meixner’s Alison, especially on “Maps” with “I can draw a circle… you lived your life inside.”

Cari Meixner here is as good a portrayal of someone trying to make art as I’ve ever seen on a stage (for context, I’ve seen five productions of Sunday in the Park With George). She embodies the confidence it takes to make art and the worry not only is it not good enough, even good enough might not matter. We feel that surge of adrenaline as she comes up with a perfect, heartbreaking caption for the scene playing out. She makes us we feel the tension and release as she sputters, rejecting attempts with “It’s only writing…It’s only drawing…I’m remembering something. That’s all,” with the same flame as when she shouts to the Father she’s trying to depict, “I had no way of knowing my beginning would be your end.”

Sydney MacGilvray’s voice is remarkable; a tiny, aimed flamethrower on songs like “It All Comes Back” and “Flying Away.” MacGilvray holds everything that will happen inside her while never consciously playing her character like a stepping stone. The moments where one Alison’s singing voice weaves through another’s spoken part or a melody beneath their speaking sets up a motif the other will flower into song in a few scenes are thrilling and real.

Peter Michael Smith is revelatory here. There’s a delicate quality to his portrayal that keeps the character from being a monster or someone misunderstood and blameless. His warmth and delight on “It All Comes Back” and his radiating melancholy with Odell on “Telephone Wire” are indelible, drilling into the listener’s mind. He walks the tightrope of being a catalyst and being a person, playing a person half-remembered but with the details still sharp and the colors glowing.

Peter Matthew Smith and Sydney MacGilvray perform in CATCO’s production of Fun Home through October 1, 2017. Photo by Chad DeBlasio.

Kim Garrison Hopcraft, one of our finest actors, plays Helen like a great boxer knowing when to roll on the ropes. We see her as reactive, doling out pieces of information, trying to keep things together throughout most of Fun Home. Anytime she might be playing a long-suffering wife we’ve seen before, she unbalances that perception. Kron and Tesori are too smart and subtle to let that be the sum of this character and Garrison Hopcraft makes sure we know that. When she tears into her character’s aria, “Days and Days,” with the perfect lines “Days and days and days, made of posing and bragging and fits of rage,” it’s like the air catches fire.

Steven Anderson’s in-the-round direction and Edith Wadkins’ moody set with pieces of “reality” set against a floor of sketched lines are perfect. The sense that the characters are always circling each other adds to the uneasiness without being forced. Anderson and his actors find the hard-to-sum-up sensibility of the work with a deceptive ease and the relaxation that belies intense work.

A score of songs with undeniable hooks that have to slip in and out of conversations just as our interior monologues bleed into our speech gets treated with the reverent roughness it needs. One example out of many: the moment where MacGilvray almost vibrates with the acknowledgement that doesn’t get talked about enough in love, singing beyond her years, “Your bearing and your dungarees, and your lace-up boots” as the adult Alison stands in for that woman bathed in light. That symbiosis of actor and director creates the fire up my spine that keeps me going to see theatre.

Fun Home at CATCO is the rare show I’d recommend to anyone. I cried for almost a third of its tight 90-minute running time and all I wanted to do after was talk about it.

Fun Home runs through October 1 with shows at 11:00 a.m. Wednesday, 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, please visit catco.org

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