Luke and Colleen, the Chicago siblings at the center of Chelsea Marcantel’s COVID-era drama The Upstairs Department (★★★☆☆), seem at the outset to be close pals, if somewhat disconnected. Introduced traveling in a car together, the two couldn’t be further apart.
Director Holly Twyford positions actors Annie Grove, as Colleen, and Zach Livingston, as Luke, at opposite corners of Signature’s ARK stage.
In action, the divide obliges the audience to follow the duo’s banter on a swivel as they volley stories and sick burns across the expanse of Paige Hathaway’s spare set.
In theory, the distance signals that, despite a plot driven by Luke possibly making paranormal contact with the afterlife, the true point of the evening will be Colleen and Luke making contact with each other — or not.
Major changes in their lives and in the world have torn a rift in their relationship that might be beyond repair. But they still share an endearing camaraderie, credibly etched by Grove and Livingston, and a willingness to try to get back to being best friends.
So Colleen sets aside her skepticism, mostly, to accompany Luke on a quest for answers about his newfound power to communicate with the dead.
The production — a world premiere of a Signature commission — ably walks the fine line between taking Luke’s journey as a medium seriously, and lampooning the very idea of someone claiming to be a conduit to the spirit world.
That dichotomy is represented well by Shiloh (Joy Jones), who serves as Luke’s mentor in Lily Dale, a village sixty miles south of Buffalo, home to an enclave of mediums and “intuitives.” There, Luke hopes to hone his abilities, and reach beyond the veil to communicate with his and Colleen’s recently deceased dad.
Shiloh welcomes him, both as a fellow intuitive eager to guide him in his quest, and as a saleswoman eager to keep clientele flowing through Lily Dale. Jones gives Shiloh the steady, soothing, performative delivery of a guru used to leading touchy-feely group discussions.
The costumes and decor warmly echo the serene spiritual vibe with shawls and carpets, shaded lamps and jars of lights like fireflies, the trappings of a psychic’s sanctum.
But Jones puts enough self-awareness behind Shiloh’s persona to hint that there’s a more authentic self the guru’s not showing her visitors. To the character’s detriment, it takes almost too long to finally see, in a beautifully acted solo scene, what led Shiloh to Lily Dale. Rippling back-and-forth between past and present, the play also gradually fills in the events that set the siblings on the same road.
Colleen coming out as lesbian, and introducing her girlfriend Annabeth to the family, apparently was no small bump on that road. Grove powerfully renders Colleen’s conflict of confidence undermined by the sting of rejection, moving effortlessly between joking skepticism and touching vulnerability.
Livingston doesn’t similarly open a window into Luke, but rather presses insistently in depicting the character’s amped-up need to resolve his losses.
Tension between brother and sister stokes anticipation of a narrative knockout punch that never comes, although Marcantel does adeptly button up the story in the end.
Yet, even before then, Colleen lands some of the playwright’s sharpest blows, spitting facts about queerness and identity, acceptance and loss, and most scathingly, the folks whose selfishness during a deadly worldwide health crisis literally cost others their lives and loved ones.
The Upstairs Department runs through June 12 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, Va.
A Pride Night performance is Friday, May 20.
Tickets are $40 to $96.
Call 703-820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
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