Michael Cerveris is one of our most treasured actors. He's played Sweeney Todd and Hedwig on stage, and many may know him from his role as James Castro on The Good Wife. But for anyone who has had the pleasure (and pain) of seeing the current production of Fun Home, they know that the role of Bruce Bechdel may be his best yet. He's nominated for a Tony award for the role (and we'll find out if he wins this Sunday, June 7), but not matter what happens, it's certainly be a career milestone.
Cerveris recently wrote a piece that he published on Medium titled, "Lies My Father Never Told Me," in which he exlains why he likes "playing the odd, the weird, the outsiders" on stage. He begins the piece by stating:
For much of the past two years, I have been wearing someone else’s hair and pretending to be someone else’s father. I’ve never met the person(s) whose hair was so artfully woven by master wig maker Paul Huntley into the strikingly natural creation that nightly turns me into Bruce Bechdel at Fun Home. But I am proud and grateful to say that I have not just met, but am getting to know the person whose father I am pretending to be, because that person is the remarkable genius, Alison Bechdel.
Cerveris with Sydney Lucas in 'Fun Home' at the Public Theater.
The character of Alison is played by three young female actors of different ages. For anyone who has experienced the close bond that's apparent between the cast, Cerveris explains it was something that happened immediately:
When I signed on to be the last piece in the cast Sam Gold, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tessori were assembling to bring Fun Home to the downtown stages at the Public Theater, I was focused on Bruce Bechdel’s struggle with his sexual identity and his inability to find peace with who he was. It somehow escaped my notice that one of the primary things he was, regardless of his sexuality, was a father. That oversight was immediately corrected before lunchtime on the first day of rehearsal, as Sydney Lucas, Griffin Burney, and Noah Hinsdale, my instant Off-Broadway offspring, adopted me as their ‘new dad’ and began climbing on me, hanging from any unoccupied arm and falling over themselves to tell me about whatever vitally important thing they’d just thought or heard.
Being in Fun Home has been a profound experience for everyone in the cast, but Cerveris seems to have been intensely moved. As he explains, the cast took a "field trip" to Alison Bechdel's former Beech Creek house — including the actual "Fun Home," along with Bruce and Helen Bechdel’s graves and the spot where Alison's father was struck and killed.
Cerveris at Bruce Bechdel’s grave, Beech Creek, PA
Cerveris goes on to explain that audience members have told him repeatedly, “My family was nothing like this, but I mean, my family was exactly like this.” It seems that's one reason so many people are enjoying the tragic tale. As he explains: "For all the singular aspects of Alison’s story, the thing that has been uniting very disparate groups of people in our audience night after night is precisely its universality. Journalist and author Mark Harris explained on Twitter that our show is 'a beautiful musical but specialized. You shouldn’t go unless you’re a father or daughter or mother or son.' ”
Athough Cerveris's family relationships were much different, and he's not a father to any children in real life, he says being one on stage has been profound:
So when I am being dad Bruce, I feel like I am hearing my dad’s voice come out of my throat. And when I scoop up little sleeping Zell and hold him with one arm while I clumsily lay out his sleeping bag with the other, I’m my dad at the end of countless nights taking his three children to see theater or symphony or ballet that will stay with them their whole lives and shape who they will be. And when I look at Oscar and see my earnest little ten or eleven year old self in him, I am suddenly my dad seeing himself in me. And though I am (thus far) not a dad myself, I find myself full of paternal care for these kids — who are not mine, except they are. Just on loan.
It's certainly a moving experience seeing Cerveris as Bruce Bechdel. One that has brought tears to my eyes and makes me recommend the show to everyone I see. No, it's not a feel-good story, but it's one that I think everyone should make the attempt to see.