Funeral Game, at Potrero Stage through January 18, is a play about the slipperiness of identity and memory in a family context, exploring how two sisters are inescapably defined by each other and the ghost of their middle sister.
Following the death of their grandmother, estranged sisters Amy (played by Rachael Richman) and Ruthie (played by Emma Attwood) meet at their bequeathed family cabin to discuss the future of the property and the trauma of its past. Unable to navigate the landmines of a lifetime of jealousy and resentment, they wind up communicating through regressive childlike versions of themselves as they again confront the defining event of their life: the earlier death of their middle sister.
When we first meet Amy, unhinged in a Victorian nightgown, we’re given little indication of the time period. She huddles by a transistor radio, desperately trying to decipher intermittent bursts of radio static from a possibly paranormal source. It’s not until the arrival of Ruthie, the younger and ostensibly more grounded sibling, that we discover we’re in the present day and may need to question Amy’s perception of reality. That initial feeling of disorientation is sustained throughout the play, crucial to accessing the unstable dynamic between the sisters.
Funeral Game is produced by the Bread & Butter Theatre company, written by San Francisco-based writer and director Lana Palmer and directed by Bay Area actor and Bread & Butter artistic director Bruce Avery.
Though we’re introduced to Ruthie as the more responsible adult and Amy as the clear lost soul, these roles are upended with the reveal that Amy is a successful accountant, newly unmoored, and that Ruthie is a lost, impulsive artist struggling to conform in her new corporate graphic design job. The dissonance between who these women are — and who they want to convince each other they are — is compelling, but at times muddled and too removed from their inner emotional lives. We’re occasionally left unsure which version of them to care about. They’re so hermetically sealed in their own pain that it can be difficult to feel any intimacy between them. As a result, some of the more transcendent moments in the play are the sisters’ monologues to the audience.
As their sanity gives way to cabin fever, there are some borderline-psychedelic sequences that culminate in a delightfully disturbing reenactment of a childhood ritual. The play could stand to lean further into some of its more macabre and perverse impulses, finding more of the feeling and volatility beneath its cerebral construction. As is, Funeral Game is an occasionally haunting consideration of grief and family dynamics.
1695 18th Street
January 8 to 18, 2020
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission