It’s Friday night, an hour before curtain on stage at Actor’s Express and Eden Mew is running up to her two cast mates, Rhyn McLemore Saver and Marcía Cunning to greet them with a hug. In return, Saver is admiring Mew’s cool floral-accented dress, joking with her, “I want to steal your entire wardrobe.”
The three actresses portray real-life trailblazing “Dykes to Watch Out For” cartoonist Alison Bechdel at various stages of her life in the critically acclaimed musical “Fun Home” running at the West Midtown Atlanta theater through Feb. 16.
For those who didn’t see the Tony-winning Best Musical in New York, the stellar Actor’s Express production is one of the first opportunities for Atlantans to experience the emotional powder keg of a play. With a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, music by Jeanine Tesori, the show is based on Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” chronicling the lesbian artist’s relationship with her father Bruce, a closeted bisexual high school teacher and funeral home director.
While the entire Actor’s Express “Fun Home” ensemble shines in the show, it’s Saver, Cunning and Mew as Small, Medium and Adult Allison who give the show its heartbeat. In a joint interview with Eldredge ATL, the trio — or “Fun Home’s” Al-i, if you will — discuss what drew them to the role and how they invite audiences each night into a deeply immersive, emotional experience for 110 minutes, with no intermission.
For Mew, a sixth grader, portraying the youngest Alison is an extension of the family business. Her father, Thomas J. Mew, a partner at Atlanta’s Buckley Beal, is one of the attorneys representing Gerald Bostock, whose Clayton County LGBTQ worker’s rights case was argued last fall in front of the Supreme Court (a ruling is expected later this year). Mew dedicates her performance in “Fun Home” to Bostock and to the musical’s director and Actor’s Express artistic director Freddie Ashley.
“Getting to meet all of those amazing people from different backgrounds who identify as part of this community really made me want to bring their stories to light,” explains Mew. “It’s really amazing to be a part of such an amazing show in such an incredible theater and to work with such an amazing cast.”
Deadpan, Cunning adds: “She’s not actually a child, she’s a robot.” The three crack up. Saver adds that, in addition to serving as her personal fashion guru (“She has the best fashion sense.”), Mew is also the cast’s unofficial dramaturg.
“Throughout our entire rehearsal process, these amazing insights would come out of Eden’s mouth…” says Saver. “And the rest of us would be like, ‘write that down, write that down!’” adds Cunning.
While director Freddie Ashley didn’t sit the three down to deliberately discuss the physicalities shared by childhood Alison, college Alison and adult Alison, during rehearsal, Mew picked up on the hand fidgets she observed the two older actresses using and borrowed them for her character.
Recalls Cunning: “The only time I really talked about it was when I mentioned I picked up some of [Rhyn’s] hand fidgets and remarked that it really helped me. And [Rhyn] said, ‘Oh, I got those from Eden!’ It was this weird thing that we’d been doing for a while. It was never talked about, it just happened.”
While Saver has worked at Actor’s Express previously with memorable roles in “Stupid Fucking Bird” and “Company” and in “Ever After” at the Alliance Theatre, Cunning was plucked from the Actor’s Express current intern company to portray Medium Alison.
In a show filled with emotional truths, Cunning’s performance of “Changing My Major” brings down the house nightly. I have so much fun doing that song,” says Cunning. “It’s definitely nerve racking because the character is carrying all this stress, anxiety and giddiness combined. It’s so well written. You can find everything you need to know about Medium Allison in that song. She thinks she’s going to be alone her whole life and then she meets Joan and she’s just radiating happiness. It’s that moment when she is truly seeing and becoming herself. As Lisa Kron said, ‘This is a song about sex.’ How often is queer sexuality represented and celebrated in a Broadway musical?”
For Saver, who is onstage, milling about her artist drafting table for all 100 minutes of the musical, one of the great pleasures of playing adult Alison is having a front row seat for her cast mates’ performances. Says Saver: “When [Marcía] sings ‘my heart feels complete’ [in ‘Changing My Major’] each night, that’s when the first tears come for me.” Asks Cunning: “Really? Aww. I didn’t know that.” Replies Saver: “Without fail, I’m a mess. Adds Cunning: “I’m the same way when I watch Eden do ‘Ring of Keys.’”
For Mew, tackling “Ring of Keys,” Small Alison’s signature song (originally performed on the 2015 Tony Awards by Sydney Lucas) began in her Actor’s Express audition. “I didn’t try and enforce the fact that she’s a young lesbian in that moment,” explains Mew. ”It’s more about that spark of connection. I’m not a member of the LGBTQ community but I am an ally, so I tried to and connect it something I’ve personally experienced. For me, I could connect to going to a new school and being accepted. I could relate it back to finding my tribe [in the school’s theatre department] because middle school can be really scary.”
As adult Alison, Saver says she’s had fun explaining the 1970s-centric pop culture references for her younger cast mates in a show with musical numbers inspired by the Jackson Five and The Partridge Family. “When the land shark reference comes up each night, you always hear one or two laughs in the audience,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you remember.’ It’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ at its best. I have never been filled with more joy than I was while on a break, seeing the younger members of the cast, gathered around, watching the land shark sketch on YouTube for the first time!”
For the audience and cast alike, digging deep into the musical’s emotional familial terrain each night in such an intimate setting is a moving experience. “I’ve played on a lot of stages, but there is something about this space that is very safe,” says Saver. “There’s something that’s magical about this space because it’s so immersive. It contributes to the energy of show.”
All three Alisons agree that Natasha Drena, who portrays the mother Helen in the musical and delivers the devastating “Days and Days” summation of her marriage to Middle Allison late in the show, is a phenomenon.
Explains Cunning: “Once you get to ‘Days and Days,’ emotionally, you just have to strap in. It’s devastation to the end.” Both older actresses say the musical’s theme of complicated family dynamics resonates with them, along with the members of the audience each night, who are routinely reduced to tears.
“Watching the other actors is like a master class for me,” says Cunning. “But watching Natasha perform ‘Days and Days’ is particularly powerful for me because it’s very similar to my relationship with my mom. For months, I would listen to that song every day so I could train myself not to cry. I have this happy scene with [actor Jeff McKerley, who beautifully portrays dad Bruce] right after, so I got myself to a place where I was able to keep it together. And then the first night my mom was here, I just lost it. I was sniffling and my mike kept picking it up. And I’m thinking, ‘Just get it out, get it out.’”
Saver, Mew and Cunning say playing the same character at various stages of her life each night has created a unique bond between them. “Rhyn is like my big sister now,” says Cunning. “I tell her all the time, ‘I want to be you when I grow up.’” Saver laughs and adds, “I tell them the same thing! It’s impossible for me to hit the off switch emotionally. I texted Marcía a video this afternoon just because I knew it would make her laugh. [Turning to Eden] And I just hung up with my sister talking to her about this one. In many ways, it is a sisterhood.”
In rehearsal, when the cast was blocking the curtain call and director Freddie Ashley initially suggested Saver take the final bow, the actress resisted. Instead, they agreed to honor the strength of the “Fun House” ensemble.
Consequently, at the conclusion of show, each cast member bows individually and then in unison.
Says Saver: “Having a cast like this one is incredibly rare. Every night, we come together, connect and tell the truth. It’s an incredibly special thing.”
The Tony-winning musical “Fun Home” with music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and directed by Freddie Ashley runs through Feb. 16 at Actor’s Express in West Midtown Atlanta. For more information and tickets, click here.
Above “Fun Home” photos courtesy of Actor’s Express
Photo of Saver, Mew and Cunning by Richard L. Eldredge