Grief, challenges lead the way ‘Home’ for playwright Lisa Kron

March 8, 2017
From left: Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan and Alessandra Baldacchino in “Fun Home.” Photo by Joan Marcus

Years before Lisa Kron wrote the book and lyrics to the musical “Fun Home” — based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel about coming out as a lesbian even as her gay father remained closeted — she channeled her own relationship with her father into a play.

Her 1996 solo show “2.5 Minute Ride” draws on how her father, Walter Kron, survived the Holocaust by traveling to New York at 15. He later discovered that his family had been murdered in the Chelmno concentration camp in Poland.

In “2.5 Minute Ride,” Lisa Kron visits Auschwitz with her father as well as his hometown of Fritzlar, Germany, where she becomes confused by how at ease he seems in the country where his family was persecuted.

“Part of what happens to the character of me in the course of the show, as it did in [real] life, was realizing that I had projected a lot of grief onto my father,” Kron, 55, said during a telephone interview from the New York home she shares with her wife, playwright Madeleine George. “But he had his own experience and grief that I wasn’t privy to.

“The way we look at the Holocaust is now codified for us,” Kron added. “We’ve calibrated the amount of horror we’re meant to feel. … But what my father and grandparents lived [through] had no such framework. I wanted to figure out ways to consider that experience and also to look at the difference between … someone else’s lived experience and our own.”

This dilemma is at the core of “Fun Home” as well. The musical explores how the character of Alison Bechdel struggles to understand why her closeted father, Bruce, committed suicide by stepping in front of a truck, several months after she came out as gay at Oberlin College. Early on, the fictional Alison states the show’s central question as she wonders why “My father and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town, and he killed himself and I became a lesbian cartoonist.”

“Fun Home,” at the Ahmanson Theatre through April 1, won five 2015 Tony Awards, including best musical and best book and original score for Kron, who also was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her work.

In the show, the fictional Alison is played by three actresses of diverse ages to represent the cartoonist from grade school to middle age. “Alison’s desire is to tell the story of her father, yet throughout she’s saying, ‘But is that what really happened? Is that the way it went?’ ” Kron said. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to theatricalize that particular question, and so I hooked into Alison’s story immediately that way.”

Kron’s own family history has been a central theme in some of her best-known work. Her paternal grandfather was the head of the Jewish community in Fritzlar, as well as a teacher in the local Jewish school and the cantor at his synagogue. When he became aware of the Nazi threat, he sent his son, Walter, to the United States in 1937 on a rescue program known as One Thousand Children, the American version of the larger Kindertransport effort in Britain.  The teenaged Walter felt a sense of adventure about his journey to New York, but having been beaten up regularly by anti-Semites in Germany, he was also grateful for the opportunity. “He told me that once he stepped on American soil, all he could think was, ‘Now they won’t be able to get me anymore,’ ” Kron said.

Several years later, her father served as an interrogator of suspected war criminals for the American military. Eventually, as an attorney in Michigan, he co-founded a local synagogue and became known for his Jewish erudition.

“My dad used to say to us, ‘But for the good fortune of being a Jew, I might have been a Nazi,’ ” Kron said.

Meanwhile, Lisa’s mother, Ann, a convert to Judaism, tirelessly worked to heal racial tensions in their community while being unable to heal herself of a debilitating auto-immune disease. Kron’s 2004 play, “Well,” investigates her memories of her mother as well as her own experience of attending all-Black schools as a girl.

The aspiring performer went on to attend Kalamazoo College, a liberal arts college in Michigan, and to move to New York, where she helped found the theater collective “The Five Lesbian Brothers” and to pen plays such as “101 Humiliating Stories” and “In the Wake.”

Of why she has often been drawn to autobiographical material in her work, Kron said, “Both my parents intersected with the major events of the 20th century in very particular ways, which seemed potentially illuminating and unique … so I had a gold mine of material.”

Kron had never written a musical or a piece based on someone else’s work when producers approached her about what would become “Fun Home” about seven years ago. Her collaborator was composer Jeanine Tesori, who also won a Tony for her work on the show.

“[Yet] there was nothing but challenges, epic challenges,” Kron said of creating the book and lyrics. For her autobiographical plays, “I had this endless file cabinet of my own memories,” she said. “But I had no file cabinet of Alison’s memory. So I had to invent things. Also, Alison was available and I asked her questions often.”

Bechdel, further, sent the show’s creators the journal she had kept while creating her graphic novel, as well as period photographs, including a picture of one of her father’s lovers.

Kron’s lyrics describe the cartoonist’s father as a fanatical perfectionist about the family’s Victorian home, which he painstakingly restores as a way to control his inner angst. He ultimately commits suicide because “When your lesbian daughter shows you that you can just come out, then you have to decide whether you are going to come out or not,” Kron said.

“In order to become a new person, you have to step off the edge of something into the unknown, and it’s scary. We see Alison terrified to jump into the unknown, but then she does it. And then we see him standing at the edge of that abyss, [thinking]:  ‘I can see what’s on the other side, and it’s so beautiful.’ But he isn’t that brave. He cannot do it and so he steps in front of a truck instead.”

“Fun Home” is being performed at the Ahmanson Theatre through April 1. For tickets and more information, visit centertheatregroup.org.

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