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Theater Review: There’s a Lot to Admire in Virginia Rep’s Haunting “Fun Home” 

“Fun Home” plays through Oct. 15 at Theatre Gym.

click to enlarge Cole Johnson, Andrea Rivette, Brandon McKinney, Duke Lafoon and Violet Craighead-Way bring polish to the intricately staged, coming-out tale “Fun House.”

Jason Collins

Cole Johnson, Andrea Rivette, Brandon McKinney, Duke Lafoon and Violet Craighead-Way bring polish to the intricately staged, coming-out tale “Fun House.”

If “Fun Home,” last year’s “The Christmas Story” and 2013’s “Next to Normal” are any indication, Andrea Rivette and Duke Lafoon are well on their way to becoming the Hepburn and Tracy of portraying parents on Richmond’s stages.

Where “Next to Normal” had Rivette depicting a mentally ill mother, “Fun Home” — currently playing at Virginia Repertory’s Theatre Gym space — has Lafoon as the focal point of the drama. Adapted from Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name, “Fun Home” is simultaneously a coming-out tale and the story of the illustrator’s fraught relationship with her late father.

Also known for her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” — which introduced the gender-bias test that bears her name — Bechdel was raised by two artistic and distant parents in rural Pennsylvania. It was only as Bechdel came to terms with her own sexuality that she learned of her father’s homosexual and sometimes destructive behavior.

Staged by Cadence Theatre Company and Virginia Rep in honor of the Richmond Triangle Players’ 25th season, there’s much to admire here. As the story is based on Bechdel’s memoir, we get Alison in triplicate to tell the tale (Becca Ayers, Elizabeth Wyld and Violet Craghead-Way), with Ayers serving as our present-day navigator through this memory play. All three incarnations shine, especially with Craghead-Way’s charming lesbian awakening with “Ring of Keys,” Wyld’s first love number “Changing My Major,” and Ayers’ melancholic “Telephone Wire” near the show’s close.

Another highlight is Craghead-Way, Brandon McKinney and Cole Johnson’s Jackson 5 sounding number, “Come to the Fun Home.” The fake commercial for the funeral home their family operates is really cute, even if it’s hard to make out some of Johnson’s lyrics. Sound can be a problem: depending on where you’re sitting — particularly if you’re near Anthony Smith’s excellent live string band — it can be hard to hear the singers at times.

Director Chase Kniffen and crew bring plenty of polish to this intricately staged show, and Lafoon retains some of his naturally endearing stage presence as Bechdel’s father, even as his character does despicable deeds. Rivette makes the most of her limited role and is affecting in her number “Days and Days.”

But for all the talent and technical knowhow packed into “Fun Home,” it doesn’t quite reach its full dramatic potential. Pinpointing the cause is a bit of guesswork, but two possible culprits are the timing and the set.

While having his shows move along seamlessly at a brisk pace is a hallmark of a Kniffen production, longer pauses between momentous scenes would help increase the dramatic ante. After a crucial death in the show, for instance, the musical rushes right along to the next number.

Also, while Rich Mason’s set is admirable in design — such as its placement of Alison’s desk in the audience and adding seating onto the set itself — the Theatre Gym space feels too cramped for the show. Depending on where you’re sitting, it can sometimes be hard to see the action, which also probably harms the dramatic tension.

Still, Jeanine Tesori’s music and Lisa Kron’s book and lyrics weave a haunting tale of Bechdel’s family and the revelations that rocked it, and Cadence’s production does commendable if not spectacular work.

In one of Alison’s last scenes with her father, the full-grown version of her takes the place of her college self to sing “Telephone Wire.” Mirroring each other in appearance, Ayers and Lafoon give life to two people who are unable to connect. Like the characters in this scene, “Fun Home” comes frustratingly close to hitting its mark. S

Cadence Theatre Company and Virginia Repertory Theatre’s “Fun Home” plays through Oct. 15 at Theatre Gym, 114 W. Broad St. For information, visit va-rep.org or call 282-2620.

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