In the Tony-winning play Fun Home, a woman is looking back on her life thus far – from a childhood not as innocent as carefree as she thought at the time, through the search for sexual identity that defined her college years, to an adulthood consumed with trying to make sense of it all.
Alison Bechdel, the protagonist, appears, sometimes simultaneously, at three ages. This, of course, requires three actresses who can not only carry the emotional weight of the story, but put across its sometimes-subversive dark humor and deliver the songs – yes, Fun Home is a musical – with pathos, charisma and a great deal of vocal ability.
In American Stage’s current production of Fun Home, the 10-year-old Alison is played by Mercy Roberts, who’s 14. “Small Alison” and her father Bruce, a funeral director (that’s where the word “fun” in the title comes from) have an essentially warm and winsome relationship.
Seen through the filter of what’s to come, Mercy’s scenes with David Mann, as her peculiar, particular and oh-so-demanding dad, are among the most wrenching in the production. Over the course of the 95-minute running time, secrets are revealed, masks are peeled away, emotions are rendered raw. And all three Alisons are in for critical discoveries.
Although Mercy, who recently graduated from eighth grade at Corbett Preparatory Middle School in Tampa, has been acting and singing onstage since she was 9 years old, Fun Home is her first professional theater production.
That she gives a standout performance in the middle of a cast of seasoned full-time actors is astonishing.
“Obviously, she could sing the part; we saw that at her audition,” says Fun Home director Karla Hartley. “There was just something about her energy that I thought was really great. And it was clear from the very beginning that she’s an extremely talented young lady.
“She was entirely comfortable from the beginning, she came in prepared, she bonded with the other girls … she’s been a pro. That kid’s going places.”
Mercy Roberts had never thought about going onstage, not once. “I always loved singing,” she says. “I would just walk around my house singing, and at some point my parents were like, ‘How about we get you singing lessons? You seem to like it.’ And I said no, no, that’s opera stuff. I don’t want to be an opera singer. I like to sing Hannah Montana in my room, Mom!’”
According to Mercy’s mother, she was a “very shy little curly-headed girl that had an older brother who had been successful in everything he explored. He was a local chess champion and a soccer player and all these things, and here she was: Everything she tried was like ‘Meh.’”
To help Mercy get her acclimated to her new school, Leah Roberts explains, ‘We said ‘Oh, they’re doing Peter Pan, you’d rehearse on Saturday, you’d meet some new people – why don’t you just go and try it? You’ll probably be a tree, and that’s OK.’’
So Mercy did – and, after singing for the director, was given the coveted role of Tinkerbell.
“I remember always looking for a thing,” says Mercy. “Right before Peter Pan I was really sad – ‘all my friends, they play soccer, they like volleyball …. I don’t have a thing yet, Mom.’”
Going into rehearsals, “I was really scared, I was freaking out. But it was such a fun experience and I loved every bit of it.
“I don’t think I was so goal-oriented yet, but in the next two years I started to seriously consider it more. In the next year we did Cinderella and Once on this Island.”
One show followed another, and as her confidence grew, her jitters disappeared. “I don’t get as scared as I used to, at age 9,” she says. “By my second show, I knew what to expect. It was the same for Fun Home, actually. Once I get onstage I’m not nervous any more. I’m just happy.”
She’s constantly working to improve her acting skills. Participating in the Florida Junior Thespian competitions, Mercy received the award for Outstanding Actress and Critic’s Choice in the 2018-2019 season, for her delivery of Emily Webb’s ghostly Act 3 monologue from Our Town.
Next came the notice for Fun Home. “I came for the audition experience,” she shrugs, “not thinking anything would come of it.”
Mercy’s parents had seen Fun Home on Broadway, and they had to think – and pray, Leah explains – about allowing their daughter to possibly portray a child whose father routinely gives into dangerous impulses (a closeted homosexual whose personal and legal troubles make things awkward and then difficult for his wife and kids, Bruce eventually commits suicide. This isn’t a spoiler – the audience learns it in the memory play’s first 15 minutes).
The genius of Fun Home is the way humor, lightheartedness and the golden glow of childhood memory are juxtaposed against uncertainty – and tragedy.
Leah Roberts says she was afraid how the subject matter in Fun Home might affect her daughter. “But I had seen what she had done with the Our Town monologue, how deep and how dark.
“And she really is good at going there and being in this experience. She’s always had exceptional empathy skills, which is why this (Fun Home) seems so natural, and why she seems to have a knack for understanding people that way.”
And so she auditioned for director Hartley. “I didn’t think I would get it,” Mercy remembers. “I just thought ‘This’ll be a great audition experience, my first professional audition, this is going to be so cool.’ And I came in, and I remember thinking ‘Oh, no, they did not like me.’ As with all actors, I overthink everything. But we got the callback about two months later, which was super-surprising.
“I wasn’t scared about it at all, surprisingly. Now, looking back at it, I’m like maybe you should have been scared … but I was just so excited. It was all I could think about.”
She was “off book,” meaning she had learned every one of Small Alison’s lines, before the first rehearsal.
The others in the eight-member cast, plus the stage manager and crew, have become “like family” to her. David Mann, in particular, learned how to make Mercy laugh and diffuse the awkwardness in the air after rehearsing their daddy-daughter scenes.
The cast rehearsed 38 hours per week for three-and-a-half weeks. She’s developed close friendships with the “grown-up” Alisons, Mollie Posnik and Adrianne Hick. “They’re like big sisters and mentors. It’s an honor to the on the stage with them. They’re so talented.”
In the fall, Mercy will begin 9th grade at Berkeley Prep, which also has a vibrant theater program.
It kinda looks like she’s found her thing at last. “I’m enjoying it a lot,” she gushes, “and so I’ve definitely considered it more as ‘something I want to do.’ It’s been an incredible experience.”
Tickets and info here.