In Boulder, a two-woman show takes on the meaning of life itself

Note: Formerly known as the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, or BETC, the organization recently changed its name to Butterfly Effect Theatre of Colorado. Fourteen Funerals is BETC’s first live performance since the start of the pandemic.

The alliteration is nice, but more precisely this play is about 14 eulogies, each delivered by Sienna, a distant relative of an entire family killed in a freak fireworks accident.

Sienna (Erika Mori) schlumps into a funeral home in Blissfield, Indiana a few moments after we’ve met the funeral director’s daughter Millie (Anastasia Davidson). She’s dusting, she’s testing out some jingles for the funeral home and she looks very much like someone wedded to this small room — possibly forever.

These are the only two characters we see in Fourteen Funerals, a new play by Eric Pfeffinger that was the winner of the BETC 2021 Generations new play competition. Directed by Rebecca Remaly, the show is ostensibly a comedy, but overall there’s more to mourn than laugh at — and I’m not talking about the recently departed members of the Fitchwood family.

Sienna washes up in Blissfield after a cryptic note about a funeral. As she later learns, this was from Millie, an efficient young woman aiming to be the best at her job and privy to the knowledge that Sienna is, in fact, the last of the Fitchfields. Any death must be accompanied by a funeral, in Millie’s world, and funerals must include some kind of eulogy. Her initial interest in Sienna is simply to have some DNA connection to whatever words are said for each of the deceased.

So there’s the setup: earnest Millie must convince a jaded and entirely uninterested Sienna to deliver the eulogies. Her only carrot to dangle is the suggestion that there may just be some inheritance money lying about, which is enough to get Sienna on board to grudgingly say some shit about each of these relatives — all of whom she’s never met.

Shields down

Over the course of the play, we watch as the two women move from not particularly liking one another very much to becoming partners in the eulogies and even having some fun with them along the way. Sienna cobbles together short bits about her dead relatives from scraps of information Millie is able to provide. As she warms to the idea that each life is worthy of some recognition at the end, she’s able to share with Millie some of her own heaping pile of problems back in Chicago. Millie, in turn, drops her sunny exterior to let Sienna in on some of her own hangups, and the two lonely young women find themselves in a complex relationship that evolves over the course of just a few weeks.

Davidson and Mori are both strong actors who find a lot to explore in each character. As Millie, Davidson worked up a potpourri of idiosyncrasies both physical and verbal to help illustrate the emotional armor the character has built up around herself. Pfeffinger’s script does a neat job illustrating the extent to which Millie has created her own little world where she’s both quite comfortable — and quite trapped. It’s only when Sienna comes along with a clear opinion that Blissfield is Nowheresville that some of that façade is stripped away for Millie.

Mori’s character represents the other side of a similar coin, where her artifice is built around bluster, chaos and self-pity. Behind it all is a woman in a bad situation hoping that the thin chance of an inheritance from her definitely-not-wealth family members will bail her out. Mori handles the transition quite nicely, allowing the character’s layers to be gradually peeled away to reveal the troubled young woman underneath.

As for the funerals themselves, the eulogies at first are weak tea: very short generalizations where Sienna’s lucky to get the name right, immediately followed by Millie’s announcement that refreshments will be served in the basement. As her interest grows in these lives she’s commemorating, we learn some more interesting tidbits: one relative was runner-up at a mooing contest; another constructed balls of mud that she polished with sand for some reason or other. Other more unsavory details come out about other family members, and Millie and Sienna spar over how much to say.

As character study, Fourteen Funerals has a lot of nice moments, and Remaly clearly worked intensively with the two actors to find and develop all of them to their fullest. As a whole, the play itself left me flat, with a fair number of trimmable minor scenes and the whole thing punctuated by brief blackouts that mask some of the lack of narrative flow.

While some unclear endings can lead to interesting post-show discussion about what the playwright might have meant, the vague conclusion of Fourteen Funerals felt more like a letdown, where everything built between the two characters is summarily discarded. If there was a deeper meaning or important clue to the look on Millie’s face as the door closes behind Sienna, I couldn’t divine what it might be.