“No one ever dies” is a telling statement from the latest Signature Theatre production, “The Upstairs Department,” which continues through June 12. Author and playwright Chelsea Marcantel wrote a story that slowly peels back many layers of one’s soul. Siblings take a trip from Chicago seeking clarity around family challenges faced for several years. Lily Dale, NY, a spiritual retreat, is where brother and sister Luke and Colleen are headed. A lot comes out on the drive up but more is revealed once they reach their destination. The siblings are guided through their journey by Shiloh, a patient, even-tempered and wise woman.
Lily Dale is a real town in New York State, founded in 1879 and known as the home of spirituality and healing. “The Upstairs Department” refers to where the spirit goes once the earthly presence has departed. Siblings Luke and Colleen, played by Zach Livingston and Annie Grove, are in mourning over the death of their father. They appear to be close and more like running buddies but something seems to be simmering below the surface. Joy Jones is Shiloh, a medium who guides Luke and Colleen, ensuring they understand the Lily Dale environment. How these actors grew to understand a production about spirituality and healing was one of the topics we discussed in a Washington Informer interview.
“I knew about spiritualists because of the Civil War. It was a time when many loved ones were passing away,” Jones said. “It’s been an education. I did not know about contemporary spiritualism. I did not know there were ongoing spiritualist communities. I did not know that spiritualists considered their belief in the afterlife or the sort of next life as a religion.”
“Upstairs” is about current life and death experiences. Living in a “new normal” has led us to question with greater frequency every aspect of our lives. Those feelings come through loud and clear through the dialogue delivered by this three-person ensemble in this play.
Livingston has known playwright Marcantel for some time but did not know she was creating a work about spirituality. He spoke highly of Marcantel’s research which he calls “next level.” He also discussed how his perspective on spirituality has changed since the production began. Livingston lives in Los Angeles but grew up in Alexandria and graduated from T.C. Williams High School, which soon will become Alexandria City High School.
“One of the big concepts this production introduced to me is that mediumship and spirituality is a form of healing,” said Livingston. “My primary questions had been ‘is this real, is this quantifiable, is this scientifically measurable in some way?’”
Grove indicated she always had a déjà vu interpretation of spiritualism before connecting her notions to the story she now tells several days per week.
“By nature, I was right there, as a skeptic,” Grove said about revelations towards spiritualism as depicted in the play. “But referring to one of Joy’s lines, I believe in a cyclical cosmos. Meaning things recycle and repeat.”
A compliment for this production is when an audience member tells the cast they came in with one idea about spiritualism and left with openness to reconsidering. Comments like that affirm the impact of the words on the page and the outstanding interpretation of those words by the cast. Well done to “The Upstairs Department” for a thought-provoking production that will stay in hearts, minds and souls long after leaving the theater.
For ticket information, go to https://www.sigtheatre.org.