When Chelsea Marcantel was commissioned by Signature Theatre in February 2020 for a new play, she had no way to know the profound changes and losses soon coming to her industry and world. Her script, grounded in the experiences of the pandemic, gently explores the personal grief so many have faced with more than 6.5 million dead. In “The Upstairs Department,” two siblings set out to find answers in the Spiritualist community of Lily Dale after one recovers from a serious illness convinced he can hear the dead. The latest play from the Heidi Thomas Writers’ Initiative, which funds world-premiere works from female playwrights and female directors, “The Upstairs Department” at Signature Theatre is a solid show in need of minor fine tuning.
…grounded and evocative…timely subject, endearing cast…
As siblings, Luke (Zach Livingston) and Colleen (Annie Grove) aren’t that close. Luke is a stereotypical bro, always sporting a backwards baseball cap, a fan of beer and urban legends, and initially convinced Covid-19 is overblown. His sister, Colleen, shares little with him besides blood—she’s a out and butch queer woman, never seen absent her Dr. Martens, with sophisticated tastes and a healthy appetite for evidence. However, when Luke and his father contracted Covid—an ordeal only Luke survives—grief pulls Colleen and Luke together. Despite a somber backstory, “The Upstairs Department” is nowhere near as grim as its premise would suggest, as Luke struggles with the otherworldly powers he believes he’s gained. Although a skeptic, Colleen joins Luke on his journey to Lily Dale, NY, where he hopes he can find guidance for his new powers and a chance to speak with his father again. In Lily Dale, as their Spiritualist host Shiloh (Joy Jones) shares, “No one ever really dies—you just lose touch and move upstairs.”
The creative team does heavy lifting in building the world of Lily Dale, a real town founded in 1879 with a present day population of around 275 Spiritualists, as the program informs us. Presented in the round, suspended lamp shades and vintage photographs line the walls of the theatre. Branches float above the stage, as if we’re in an oak grove, with bohemian fairy lights and mason jars strung among them. Antique furniture—a small table draped in long, rich clothes and a bench where props and costumes are stored—adorns the intimate stage, in Paige Hathaway’s atmospheric set design.
During scene transitions, the lamps and fairy lights flicker and backlit photographs glow, as if a presence was asked to make itself known. The flowing energy of the lighting design by Annie Wiegand and whimsical music in Kenny Neal’s sound design keep these supernatural displays from feeling menacing. After all, for the 25,000 people who seek out Lily Dale every summer, that life lingers is not frightening but comforting. Their loved ones may have passed, but no one is truly gone.
While humorous and empathetic performances help keep “The Upstairs Department” humming along, the beginning is a bit slow, as we wait for the true conflict and context to show its face, and the transitions are occasionally abrupt, an odd contrast of meandering and rushed storytelling. However, the plot itself is grounded and evocative, especially in its sensitive arc around Luke’s treatment of Colleen’s queerness and its portrayal of the horrible strangeness of the pandemic—when final goodbyes had to be done over FaceTime, eulogists might have accidentally been muted, and internet connectivity problems might create a stuttering rendition of “Ave Maria.”
With just three actors and ninety minutes, “The Upstairs Department” conjures a satisfying family drama. The paranormal gives some levity to the grief at the show’s core, with Shiloh as much our guide as Luke’s to the world of Spiritualism and Lily Dale. Luke’s earnestness contrasts with Colleen’s skepticism, allowing us to weigh doubt and faith and decide which story we’d prefer. “The Upstairs Department” may not be perfectly polished, but its timely subject, endearing cast, women-led creative team, and immersive design offer plenty of promise.
Runtime: 90 minutes with no intermission
Advisory: Age 10+
“The Upstairs Department” runs through June 12, 2022 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, Virginia 22206. Tickets can be purchased online.