Bruce Bechdel was a closeted gay man, father of three and overbearing at that, according to his daughter.
In 2006, that daughter, Alison Bechdel, a lesbian cartoonist and author, wrote an autobiography in graphic-novel form titled Fun Home about coming to terms with herself and her father as a young girl, a college student and then in her middle age.
That story, which gained widespread recognition, was eventually made into a musical of the same name. It went on to win five Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Musical. Theatre Under the Stars will bring that production (book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, music by Jeanine Tesori) to Houston May 16-28, starring former Miss America Kate Shindle, who plays the adult Alison.
"There are a lot of opinions about Bruce Bechdel and they range from 'he was an abusive father and person' all the way to 'he was a victim of circumstances beyond his control, a world view he didn't create, a culture he didn't ask to be born into," Shindle said in a phone interview.
Bruce was an English teacher in the 1970s in a small Pennsylvania town, where he also ran the family business he inherited, a funeral home (hence the name Fun Home) on the side. He was demanding of his children and wife but beyond that, he was a deeply unhappy gay man, something Shindle learns later in life.
Alison, meanwhile, is sorting out her own sexual identity starting at age ten and enters into her first lesbian affair while in college. Shindle, the oldest Alison, is onstage throughout the 100-minute, one-act play and said, "The show to me is about the fictionalized character version of Alison looking back at her life in the process of trying to write a book about her life and having to deal with her memories and experiences in a way that she didn’t expect to.”
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Bruce Bechdel was trying to do the best he could, Shindle said. "He didn't do it all that well, but he was trying to hold together a job teaching school, three kids, a funeral home that he runs on the side."
She said she understands that in today's culture, the kind of hidden life that Bruce Bechdel lived seems kind of implausible. "But I guarantee someone who's seen the show is living Bruce Bechdel's life. There probably are a lot of someones. And I have great compassion for that. It's important to recognize your true identity, and when you don't, bad things can happen."
However unusual this family’s circumstances, Shindle thinks any audience can appreciate the story. “There’s a car ride that Alison takes with her father toward the end of the play and there are a lot of things they need to talk about and they end up not talking about any of them. They end up making small talk instead. I’ve had plenty of people come up to me after the show and say, ‘I didn’t have those issues. I grew up in a very different family. But man, I’ve been on that car ride.’”
Performances are scheduled for May 16-28 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sunday May 28. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $46.50-$125.