Yale School of Drama

When Danilo Gambini moved to New Haven from Brazil in 2016, he went to New York to see the musical Fun Home. The production had just won five Tony Awards—including one for best musical—and Gambini could only get standing room tickets. For the first ten or so minutes of the show, he watched in confusion. Then, the protagonist Alison turned to the audience and said, “My Dad and I both grew up in the same / small Pennsylvania town / And he was gay / And I was gay / And he killed himself / And I… became a lesbian cartoonist.”

From that line, Gambini was hooked. When the show ended and people began to file out of the theatre, he sat down on the floor, alone, and cried for ten minutes. Fun Home has been stuck inside him ever since. Now, three years later, Gambini is a third-year M.F.A. candidate at Yale School of Drama directing Fun Home as his thesis show. The production will run from December 14th to December 20th at the University Theatre.

Fun Home the musical is adapted from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name. It tells the true story of Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her closeted father Bruce, her journey of coming to terms with her own sexuality, and her father’s eventual suicide.

The story has three different narrative lines. Adult Alison is a graphic novelist struggling to understand the mystery of her past as she writes a memoir. Small Alison is navigating an often abusive relationship with her father, who oppresses her gender expression as she begins to understand her sexuality. And Medium Alison is in college, falling in love for the first time and eventually coming out as lesbian.

In the Yale Production, third year acting M.F.A. candidates Eli Pauley and JJ McGlone will star as Alison and Bruce, respectively. Pauley and McGlone describe Fun Home as vulnerable, messy, and tragic. Before being assigned his role, McGlone said he “didn’t really know how bleak the story was and how fucked up things were.” He added, “It’s dark, man. I kill myself at the end of the play. What we’re doing to each other on stage is not the shiny side of humanity.”

Fiercely closeted, Bruce’s repressed sexuality leads him to cruelly lash out against his family. While many of his actions may make it hard for some viewers to sympathize with him, McGlone finds a balance between holding him accountable and understanding he was a gay man in an unwelcoming world. “It’s tragic what he did to his family and it’s tragic what the world did to him,” he said.

As Pauley prepared for her role, she connected with Alison’s quest to find order and meaning in her past. “In order to move forward, you have to go backwards,” Pauley said. “You have to look at the things that have been living inside of you that you’re kind of ignoring.”

Gambini’s production of Fun Home utilizes different levels of theatricality to explore this concept of memory. The set is designed to be Alison’s memory palace—a physical space in her mind that stores her memories. Alison’s memory palace is her childhood home, which was a Victorian funeral home her dad owned and was obsessed with redesigning and curating. But, as Gambini points out, Alison’s mental recreation of her home is not necessarily her actual home; it is just her memory of it. The walls of the set are painted in the same light blue as the ink Bechdel uses in her graphic novel.

For the majority of the play, adult Alison and Bruce do not directly interact with each other. Alison does not have an active stage role, and she mostly stands off to the side as her memories unfold before her. This is an especially tragic place for Alison to occupy—she is the only character onstage who knows what is going to happen. She knows that her father will eventually kill himself, but she is helpless to change anything. All she can do is watch.

In the climax of the play, though, Alison and Bruce come together on stage and share a song. This is one of the moments Pauley is most excited about. “It’s such a beautiful song,” she said. “We both have a lot to play with because we’re both in two different worlds trying to have one conversation.”

“That number’s really trippy because I, as Bruce, have never met this version of my daughter yet because she’s in the future … Eli [Pauley] and I are on stage together for the whole show but not looking or talking to each other,” McGlone added.

While Alison and Bruce are certainly tragic characters, the entire show is not bleak, and several of the musical numbers are uplifting. McGlone refers to himself and Pauley as “the rainclouds of doom of the show,” but promises “there are really fun moments that don’t involve us.”

For Gambini, the heart of the show is one scene in which Small Alison sees a woman she calls an “old-school butch.” In Gambini’s words, this “triggers something in [Small Alison’s] heart and her soul, this deep identification that she cannot really understand at the moment.” This is the incredible power of representation. And this is what Gambini thinks Fun Home is all about: “This kid going through this whole shift, this seismic shift of her understanding of gender, gender expression, and love… and happiness.”

Andrew Kornfeld | andrew.kornfeld@yale.edu