“Adolescence is a war,” mystery writer Harlan Coben once shrewdly said of that traumatic collision of self-esteem and self-awareness from which “no one gets out unscathed.” Though the textbooks insist it ends when one reaches “the age of majority,” the idea that a meaningful cessation of hostilities is inextricably tied to the adult successfully grappling with the insoluble riddle of WTF its parents could have been thinking has largely been left to psychoanalysis and literature.
So it is in director Sam Gold’s scintillating road show staging of Fun Home, the lyrically penetrating 2015 Broadway musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed graphic-novel memoir, which has finally landed at the Ahmanson Theatre. Driven by the haunting melodies of Jeanine Tesori’s contrapuntal score (under Micah Young’s assured musical direction) and Lisa Kron’s mosaically structured book and poetically on-point lyrics, the soaring drama of that fraught coming-of-age journey is compounded by its heroine’s double bind of coming out in a small-town, 1970s Pennsylvania family led by a gay patriarch who is himself tragically trapped in the closet.
But the most universally resonant insight of the evening comes in its grasp of the slippery nature of family itself, as the sheltering assumptions of pre-adolescent Small Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino, doubled by Carly Gold) first fracture under the increasingly resentful questioning of college-age Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan), only to be reconciled in the expansive compassion of the mature, adult Alison (Kate Shindle), who hovers over the proceedings like a ghostly narrator.
The core of the story is Alison’s attempt to come to terms with how her own sexual identity is connected to that of her father, Bruce (a touching Robert Petkoff), and is maybe even implicated in the high school English teacher and funeral director’s untimely end.
“My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town,” Alison states at the end of “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue,” the show’s second full song, “and he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist.”
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That number, which ends on the discordant note of Bruce leering at the family’s hunky young handyman Roy (Robert Hager) as the Bechdels sit for a formal portrait, both encapsulates and drives the narrative. Alison’s long-suffering mother Helen (the superb Susan Moniz) is joined by the rest of the family, frantically singing about the maniacal perfectionism that Bruce imposes on the Bechdels’ showcase Victorian home (eye-poppingly rendered by set designer David Zinn), which he has meticulously restored and maintains, the lyrics suggest, as a means to contain his inner chaos.
The evening’s emotional highpoint is carried by Corrigan as Middle Alison goes off to Oberlin College and meets confident out lesbian Joan (Karen Eilbacher). Corrigan is terrific as a self-conscious freshman bristling with insecurities, and her sexual awakening is vividly celebrated in her rapturous solo to the sleeping Eilbacher in the whimsical love ballad "Changing My Major." Shindle also scores in her heartbreaking duet with Petkoff on “Telephone Wire,” which imagines father and daughter in their final moment together before his death, unable to broach the subject that has simultaneously separated and connected them.
Fun Home’s most poignant irony is driven home in its wistfully moving and hopeful finale ballad, "Flying Away," shared by Shindle, Corrigan and Baldacchino; that, not unlike the old-time carnival funhouse of trick mirrors, shifting floors and distorted perspectives, family can be both a prison as well as a liberation.
Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through April 1. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org.