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Signature Theatre commissioned The Upstairs Department in March of 2020, but the production was delayed for obvious reasons. Now serving as the theater’s first world premiere since the pandemic started, it’s not technically about COVID-19, though the virus, which hit as the playwright was beginning to craft the play, haunts the proceedings from start to finish. It’s a poignant three-hander that explores one of the hardest aspects of the pandemic: It is harder to connect, both with those who are closest to us and those who have been taken from us.
In the backstory to The Upstairs Department, Chicago bro Luke (Zach Livingston) and his father caught COVID-19 in the early weeks of the pandemic and were put into medically induced comas. Luke woke up, convinced he could communicate with the dead; his father, on the other hand, never woke up. Now, Luke is traveling to New York’s Lily Dale Spiritualist community with his sister, Colleen (Annie Grove), where he hopes to hone his skill and make contact with the one spirit he most dearly wants to connect with: his father.
The play succeeds where it most needs to, exploring the strained relationship between Luke and Colleen as they explore the strange town of Lily Dale and receive lessons from local medium Shiloh (Joy Jones). The dialogue is strongest in the second half of the play as the barriers between the siblings start to come down and the writing and acting truly begin to gel. In an exceptional monologue toward the end, Colleen explains why she feels wary around her bro-y brother even as he shows her consistent support and interest.
Upstairs has been staged in the round, with an invitingly cozy set from scenic designer Paige Hathaway that evokes a beautiful summer evening in upstate New York, with firefly light jars twinkling from a canopy of branches overhead. The tiny set ratchets up the intimacy of this small play, but it comes at the cost of awkward blocking, with the actors often shouting in order to be heard by whatever fraction of the audience they’re not facing. This is especially a problem with Luke; multiple characters remark how much his time in Lily Dale changes him—that he’s no longer the broken man he was at the start of the play—but his high-energy yelling from start to finish paints a fairly flat (though very enthusiastic) character.
The lack of a true backstage is another tradeoff, here solved by an inconspicuous chest that serves as Upstairs’ props and costume department in between scenes—and there are a lot of scene changes. Playwright Chelsea Marcantel’s twists and turns come mostly in the form of flashbacks, while the rest of the play unfolds in what feels like dozens of scenes that span a month in Lily Dale. A one-room, one-night story of these two siblings—relative strangers—learning to relate to each other might have been more impactful, but the frequent scene and time changes constantly threaten to kill the play’s momentum.
Overall, Upstairs is a bit of a mess—but then, so are a lot of things that have arisen from the past two years. It’s fascinating to see a new work developed out of some of the very darkest moments of the modern age, and it’s refreshing that Upstairs still has quite a lot of optimism for our ability to connect with one another, even after it feels as though everything has fallen apart. The play comes through like a voice from the beyond: a bit muddy and in need of interpretation, but potentially containing the message we most need to hear right now.