hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture February-March 2023


Dark humor amid a family tragedy

Hubbard Hall presents ‘Fun Home’ musical in shows Feb. 3-12


Some of the younger actors take part in a rehearsal in late January for Hubbard Hall’s new production of ‘Fun Home.’ The musical is based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir, which focuses on her relationship with her father, the owner of a small-town Pennsylvania funeral home. Joan K. Lentini photo


Some of the younger actors take part in a rehearsal in late January for Hubbard Hall’s new production of ‘Fun Home.’ The musical is based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir, which focuses on her relationship with her father, the owner of a small-town Pennsylvania funeral home. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


When Alison Bechdel was an arts student in the Berkshires in the late 1970s, she was, like so many 18-year-olds, beginning to discover her true self.

Studying with Arthur Hillman, a professor at what was then known as Simon’s Rock Early College in Great Barrington, Bechdel learned the finer points of printmaking and book art and began to excel at what would become her medium of choice: the cartoon.

Within a few years, she would create the groundbreaking weekly comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which quickly earned her a cult following and ran in syndication for 25 years.

But telling stories through cartoons was more than a passion for Bechdel. It also became a way to process a difficult childhood. And that led to her 2006 graphic memoir, “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” in which Bechdel explores her formative years in small-town Pennsylvania, her emotionally fraught relationship with her father, and her realization in her late teens — just as she was discovering her own sexuality, and just before his death in 1980 — that her father was a closeted gay man.

“Fun Home,” which Time magazine called a masterpiece and named its No. 1 book of the year in 2006, eventually was made into a Broadway musical, winning five Tony awards in 2015, including Best Musical. Playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori also made history as the first all-female writing team to win a Tony for a musical.

This month, Hubbard Hall will present “Fun Home” in eight performances Feb. 3-12 in Cambridge.

David Snider, Hubbard Hall’s executive and artistic director, said the play’s universal themes have made it a favorite.

“The family dynamics is the sweet spot of the story,” he explained. “It addresses questions like ‘What were my mom and dad really like?’ ‘Do I know where I came from?’ and ‘How do I unpack my 12-year-old self to fit with today?’ The core of the story is very relatable.”

The focus of the story is Bechdel’s relationship with her father, Bruce, a short-tempered English teacher who also runs a funeral home. (The book’s title comes from the family’s nickname for the business — and also makes an ironic comment on their household’s dysfunction.)

Bruce is creative, obsessively focused on restoring their big old house, and achingly repressed. Young Alison also struggles with her own sexual identity in an era when, outside of a few big cities and college towns, being openly gay was still taboo. Her father’s death, in what she concludes was a suicide — two weeks after Bechdel’s mother asks for a divorce — sends Alison into a tailspin of “what ifs” and a rehashing of intimate details of her childhood.

Kirk Jackson, a theater professor at Bennington College, said he jumped at the chance to direct the play, despite never having seen it before.

“It’s weird, because I’ve known Lisa [Kron] since the ‘90s and even lived in the same East Village building as her,” Jackson said.

But he said the story’s plot has resonated strongly with the cast and crew.
“Most have seen the play, and for some it was seminal in their growing up and, in some cases, coming out,” he said.

As a gay man who grew up in the same era as Bechdel, Jackson said he identifies with both father and daughter.

“I understand how the general liberation that was happening in the ’70s, while formative for me, was beyond his reach,” he said. “I find all the characters so immediately relatable, available through their vulnerability — both their frailty and bravery. I think ultimately anyone can relate to the story.”


Reliving a family’s past
Bechdel rejected the idea of having her book made into a feature film, but Kron and Tesori were able to convince her that the nuances of her emotional odyssey would translate authentically to the stage.

At Hubbard Hall, Snider plays Bruce, who drives much of the story’s emotional pulse before and after his death.

“I’ve done musicals before, and this one is very Shakespearean in that a lot of skill and physical stamina are needed beyond a straight play with no singing,” Snider said.

He said he first became familiar with “Fun Home” a decade ago when he saw the workshop production, followed by the off-Broadway and Broadway versions. He later met Kron while working at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

“I always wanted to do ‘Fun Home’ and was waiting for the right time,” he said.
Snider, who has been Hubbard Hall’s executive and artistic director since 2014, described the role of Bruce as “huge” and multi-faceted.

“There are so many notes and colors to the character,” he explained. “There are a lot of deep dives. In some ways, Bruce is an antagonist — he’s the thorn in Alison’s shoe. But I empathize with him and how he struggles to figure out how to be an artist, a dad, and run a business.”
The stage production of “Fun Home” features three chronological versions of Alison. Set in Bechdel’s studio, present-day Alison is 43 (the age when Bechdel wrote her book), and her non-linear recollections have the adult Alison watching younger versions of herself silently but attentively in the background.

“Even though it’s non-linear, there’s a clear story from beginning to end,” Snider said. “And her coming out is a big part of it.”


Young actors join in
The roles of Alison are played by four actors: Kate Pistone makes her Hubbard Hall debut as present-day Alison; Bennington College drama major Milo Lis plays adolescent Alison; and the role of younger Alison will be played on successive weekends of the production by Abigail Weeden, a student at Hoosick Falls Central School, and Juno Catlin, a seventh-grader at Greenwich Central School.

Weeden and Catlin, seasoned performers in Hubbard Hall’s youth arts programs, both said they were excited to be in the show.

“It’s my first role in a professional theatrical performance,” Weeden said. “It’s slightly stressful because there are a lot of lines, but it’s a lot of fun.”

“I thought it would be a step up from other things I’ve done before, and it seemed really interesting,” Catlin said. “We rehearse six times a week, and sometimes it’s tiring by the end of the week.”

Caleb Blackler, an eighth-grader at Cambridge Central School, plays the role of Alison’s brother, Christian; and Quentin Schneider, a seventh-grader in Cambridge, is the understudy.

“All the young actors have participated in Hubbard Hall’s arts programs,” Snider said. “They’re doing gangbusters in this production, and the professionals are really wowed by them.”
He also emphasized that because of its mature themes, the play is recommended for ages 15 and up.

Other performers include Liz Gurland as Bechdel’s mother, Helen; Grace Phipps playing the part of Bechdel’s girlfriend, Joan; and Nathaniel Frederickson, who plays several roles including Roy, the teenager who helped Bruce with household tasks and who Bechdel later learns had a sexual relationship with her father.

The production also includes four Bennington College students fulfilling their January Field Work Term experience.

“We’ve partnered with Hubbard Hall before this way, and it just feels nice to provide professional experience for students,” Jackson said. “I’m quite proud of them.”

Musical director Richard Cherry has directed numerous musicals regionally and is on the faculty of the Skidmore College music department. Costume director Richard MacPike is the costume shop manager and technical instructor of costume production at Bennington College. And lighting design and production manager Daniel Salzer has worked on several prior productions at Hubbard Hall.

Snider said Hubbard Hall’s last big pre-pandemic play was 2017’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” which featured musical director and creator Rupert Holmes writing an original song for the production.

“During and post-pandemic we were still able to do classes and smaller shows, whether wearing masks or performed outdoors, but the production of ‘Fun Home’ feels more true to our form,” he said.

Snider said the play’s unsparing attention to detail, which was also a feature of the book, has proven to strike a universal chord, making its appeal timeless. Lisa Kron has summarized it with the sentence, “Looking back is an active journey forward.”

Although the story is painful at times, Snider said it’s Bechdel’s unflinching look at her childhood that ultimately provides the catalyst to freedom.

“Accepting the pain her father was in frees her to move forward,” he explained. “She understands his limits and why he did what he did.”

Jackson said directing “Fun Home” has been an unforgettable experience – one he hopes will transfer to those who come to see the play at Hubbard Hall.

“I just hope the audience laughs, and cries, as much as I did at our very first rehearsal,” he said.

“Fun Home,” recommended for ages 15 and up, will be presented Feb. 3-12, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, at the Hubbard Hall Center for Arts and Education at 25 East Main St. in Cambridge.

Tickets ($25 for adults and $10 for students 21 and under) are available at www.hubbardhall.org or by calling 518-677-2495.