Going by the program, the heroine of the Tony-award winning musical Fun Home comes in three different age iterations: Alison, Medium Alison and Small Alison.
Winnipeg actress Catherine Wreford, 39, who plays the most mature version, refers to her character as "Old Alison." In a profession where one’s age is often a closely guarded secret, Wreford is refreshingly blunt about her age. And why not?
"I like getting old," she says. "It means I’m alive, right?"
Indeed, Wreford is in a position to appreciate that better than most. Six years ago, she was diagnosed with an anaplastic astrocytoma — brain cancer. She was told she might have only two years left. Six years was a best-case scenario.
"If anybody had told me in six years you’re going to be performing with your son at MTC, I’d be like: ‘Baloney!’ "
Wreford avoids expletives just now because her nine-year-old son Elliot Ledlow has joined her in the Tom Hendry Warehouse lobby, taking a break from rehearsal. Elliot plays Little Alison’s brother John in the 90-minute musical, adapted from the real Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.
It encompasses Bechdel’s upbringing in a family funeral home in Pennsylvania and her reckoning with her father’s closeted homosexuality as well as her own lesbianism.
Wreford came to the role a Broadway veteran (Oklahoma, 42nd Street) who walked away from a performing career to pursue other professions.
"I ran a mortgage company," she says. "I became a nurse."
But she decided to return to it not long after her cancer diagnosis, and subsequent treatment which included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
"Recovering from surgery, I had a year to figure out what I wanted to do," she says. "And I thought: You know what makes me happy? Being on stage, performing."
"So I auditioned for Rainbow Stage. I was in Les Miz, and I went from there. I started teaching at Shelly Shearer School of Dance."
Wreford’s son Elliot is a boundlessly energetic boy who admits he was inspired by his mother’s joy in performance to study acting, singing and dancing himself. The Grade 4 student is in his second year studying musical theatre at Shelley Shearer. He has a substantial speaking role in the locally lensed Hallmark movie Christmas Club, which premières in Canada on the W network Dec. 8.
And he’s clearly having a blast working on Fun Home.
"My favourite part is where we sing a commercial," he says.
"He sings standing on top of a casket," his mother says, smiling.
"It’s hard for me to focus when he’s on stage because all I want to do is watch him," Wreford says. "He’s just such a bright light and I just can’t help but look at him."
Wreford initially auditioned for the role of Bechdel matriarch Helen in the show, a role that ultimately went to Laura Olafson.
"I knew that I wasn’t the right person to play her," says Wreford. But she was game when she was asked if she would audition for the part of Alison, who is onstage for the entire running time of the play.
"I said, ‘You bet.’ So they gave me the music and I sat under the coat rack with my AirPods," she says, pointing to the racks on the south side of the Warehouse lobby. "So I’m just listening to the cast album for about an hour and a half, listening to all the Alison songs on the tracklist.
"And then I went back in and sang."
She encouraged Elliot to read for the role of John, who ended up being the last person cast in the show. (Her daughter Quinn, 6, has also made it known she intends to perform, too.)
Wreford says the musical is "intense" and an emotional roller-coaster. At the end of every rehearsal day, she says, director Sarah Garton Stanley "has a thing where we have five minutes of a song. Everybody has to pick a song and we play and we all dance and we do whatever, just to get in a happier mood, just to leave it at work and then go home and enjoy your family."
For additional support, she talked to fellow actress Beth Malone, who was nominated for a Tony for originating the role on Broadway, which suggests that’s just the kind of thing one can do, once you’ve been on Broadway yourself.
"Broadway is a pretty small world," Wreford says. "The people that I danced with 19, 20 years ago are playing leads, and because of Facebook, we’re still friends. We message each other."
On one show she performed, the music director hooked her up with Malone.
"Beth said, ‘Yeah, people who get cast as Alison are usually a bit nerdy and a bit weird.’ And I said, ‘Yep that’s me.’ "
Though Wreford has the innate carriage of a prima ballerina, she says she related to the character. She intimates her own childhood felt like one long awkward phase.
"I’ve always sort of been a butch," she says bluntly. "When I was younger, people always thought that I was a boy. Everybody always called me ‘Wreford’ because there was another Catherine in my class, so I was Wreford.
"My sister made me Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sweat pants that I wore every day to school," she says.
"And I had short hair. I played on all the boys’ teams. I remember my dad used to bring me to get my hair cut with him and they I found out I was a girl and they wouldn’t cut my hair anymore."
Still, the role is a challenge, in large part due to her cancer.
"I have very bad short-term memory," she says. "I had cancer on my speech centre so I had aphasia," she says, as Elliot listens intently. "I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t write. So I had to relearn all of that."
A compromised short-term memory is obviously problematic for a stage performance, but the fact Alison Bechdel is a comic-book artist gave Wreford the opportunity to employ "little tricks."
"I have that big drawing board," she says, revealing she can discreetly write the song list on her board "because I’m on stage the whole time. I can’t go off and be like: ‘What’s next?’
"There’s also some words in songs that I always get tripped up on, like ‘simple.’ So before every show, I just I write them on my board," she says. "I just need to look at it before I do it."
Wreford adds that this may be the first musical she’s done where "where there’s no dancing, like, ever.
"I’m wearing jeans and sneakers! I don’t have to wear my character shoes. It’s a totally new experience for me to be doing this."
But Wreford will be singing. And even when she’s not singing, a part of her will be, up on that casket, alongside Elliot.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.