Mormon heaven

This weekend J and I went to see The Book of Mormon at the Boston Opera House. The only thing I knew about the show beforehand was that it was written by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, so I fully expected it to be foul-mouthed, irreverent, and funny. What I didn’t expect, however, was for this zany story of young Mormon missionaries proselytizing in rural Uganda to be sweet.

Boston Opera House

Stone and Parker get away with lampooning Mormonism and offering a cartoonish caricature of Ugandan village life because the characters they create are essentially likable. Mormon missionaries Cunningham and Price are young, idealistic, and naive…but so is Nabulungi, the young Ugandan woman who is the first to accept a particularly warped version of traditional Mormon teaching. The degree to which Elders Cunningham and Price have been sheltered from anything but First World Problems is apparent the moment they arrive in Africa, and they never entirely lose their cluelessness, with one running gag focusing on Elder Cunningham’s complete inability to remember Nabulungi’s name even though he’s clearly smitten with her. The Book of Mormon lambasts Cunningham and Price for their naivety, but the audience can’t help but root for them.

Boston Opera House

When faced with trouble, people can either curse or bless God, and The Book of Mormon demonstrates both approaches. One toe-tapping, wildly NSFW musical number, for instance, features the Ugandan villagers teaching the visiting Mormons a phrase they utter whenever things go bad, and while the missionaries assume the phrase means “No worries,” it turns out to be pointedly blasphemous instead. Both Cunningham and Price try to convince the villagers to find solace in God, but this approach falls flat when the previously-pious Price has an epic crisis of faith the first time he faces true hardship. Initially, the missionaries’ message falls on deaf ears because its otherworldly idealism is so far removed from the harsh realities of life.

Mormon humor

But because The Book of Mormon is a comedy, it cannot end with existential dread. Although Cunningham, Price, and their fellow missionaries travel to Africa with the intention of teaching the villagers there, of course they end up learning more than they’d anticipated. Mormons, it turns out, believe a lot of crazy things…but so do Christians, Muslims, Jews, and optimists of all sorts. The Book of Mormon is a sweetly uplifting story–despite more than two hours of irreverent humor, crude jokes, and obscene language–because it suggests the metaphors underpinning religious faith are ultimately helpful and worthwhile if they lead ordinary people to treat one another more kindly.

I don’t know if God has a sense of humor, but if he does, I’m guessing he’d approve that message.

Stage from our seats

Last weekend J and I saw the musical Fun Home at the Boston Opera House. Ever since Fun Home debuted on Broadway in 2015, I’ve been quietly skeptical that Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir could be adapted for the stage, even after the show won multiple Tony awards and A (not her real initial) had seen and raved about it. Despite these glowing reviews, I wasn’t completely convinced a playwright could translate Bechdel’s book, which is masterfully told and powerfully illustrated, into another genre. I so closely associated the content of Bechdel’s memoir with its visual format featuring cartoon drawings of her childhood memories, journals, and family photos juxtaposed with her middle-aged commentary, I couldn’t imagine telling that complex and complicated story any other way.

Washington Street

Clearly I wasn’t imaginative enough. From its opening scene, Fun Home drew me and other audience members into Alison Bechdel’s unique family history. The daughter of a small town funeral director, Bechdel came out as a lesbian in college, discovered soon after that her father was secretly gay, and then lost him to an apparent suicide. On stage, this story is told with three different actresses playing Bechdel: young Alison, college Alison, and grown-up Alison, who observes from the margins, sketchbook in hand, as her life literally plays out before her (and the audience’s) eyes.

Set before the show

As a musical, Fun Home doesn’t try to replicate the visual format of the book. A small desk represents adult Alison’s cartoonist studio, the place where she struggles to understand and portray her conflicted relationship with her father, and individual props stand in for significant scenes in her life: the couch and piano in her meticulously restored, museum-like childhood home; a coffin in the funeral home (dubbed the “Fun Home” by Alison and her young brothers) that is the family business; and the door to the Gay Union where she came out as a lesbian in college. Audiences have to imagine the rest of the story.

Boston Opera House

The hand-drawn map of her father’s life that Bechdel provides in the book, for example–his birthplace, home, and site of death all contained within a tiny circle of rural Pennsylvania–is described in song but never shown. Instead, we imagine the vista of Bechdel’s childhood from her own imagined perspective as she plays airplane with her father and imagines a bird’s-eye view of her life.

Audience members also have to imagine a nameless character who plays a brief but pivotal role in Bechdel’s childhood: a butch truck driver who walks into a diner where young Alison is eating with her father. In the book, we see Bechdel’s drawing of a woman who never knew the impact she had on a girl who bridled against the dresses and barrettes her father forced her to wear. In the musical, young Alison stares at an off-stage, invisible figure who is invoked only through a recitation of her emblematic appearance: short hair, dungarees, lace-up boots, and a large ring of keys. The outfit and its impression are magical to young Alison: her first realization that people like her exist in the world outside her small circle.

Ladies' lounge

Fun Home the book bills itself as “a family tragicomic,” and I have no shame in admitting I wept as the show turned toward its conclusion. Yes, there are moments of comedy in the story, such as the over-the-top, 70s-psychedelic dance number young Alison and her brothers create to advertise the family funeral home or the awkward bumbling of college Alison’s first sexual encounter. But college Alison’s earnest interactions with her father are heartbreakingly powerful without even a hint of sentimentality. Desperate to understand and be understood by her father, both college and adult Alison encounter instead silence, her questions cut off as abruptly as the oncoming truck that took her father’s life.

Overhead

Whereas I approached Fun Home the musical with high expectations based on multiple readings of Alison Bechdel’s book, J intentionally did no research into the musical beforehand, knowing nothing more than my brief explanation that the show was based on a memoir by a lesbian cartoonist. His reaction to the show was the highest form of praise, as he said he was immediately drawn into Alison’s life not because it was a “gay story” but because it was an engaging and relatable story about an ordinary person who happens to be gay. Although the exact details of Alison Bechdel’s family upbringing are unique, her story is easy to relate to if you’ve ever had a family member (or a childhood) you’ve struggled to understand.