Chelsea Marcantel isn’t afraid to talk about death. In fact, the playwright behind well-known works like “Airness,” kind of thinks it’s vital. In her newest play “The Upstairs Department,” which is at Signature Theater through June 12, Mercantel’s characters dive headfirst from the land of the living into the world of the dead, confronting grief in the face and having a hell of a time doing it.
“The Upstairs Department” follows siblings Luke (Zach Livingston) and Colleen (Annie Grove) who are reeling after the death of their father. Luke believes that he may be able to communicate with their dad from beyond the grave, so they both take a road trip to the Lily Dale community, meet with spiritualist Shiloh (Joy Jones), and try to figure out what’s going on. From there, Colleen’s skepticism clashes with Luke’s true belief.
While the play may be chock full of heavy themes like grief and loss, it’s a comedy through and through, capturing the absurd relationship between siblings.
“In the really darkest, hardest times that I have found myself living through, even in the actual moments, there is always someone cracking a joke,” Mercantel says. “I don’t think that’s just my family or my friends, that’s the human response, we can’t stare at things for too long that are really horrific or really hard, someone has to lighten the mood so we can all sort of take a breath… I think it’s sort of the responsibility of a writer to not just take audiences to dark places and leave them there.“
And yet, there’s still something cathartic about the play. For Mercantel, it’s been a helpful way to process the pandemic, which gets a nod in the “The Upstairs Department.”
As Marcantel explains, “It’s helped me process the grief of the pandemic, the sort of nebulous impersonal grief, the grief cloud that’s hanging over everything. It’s helped me kind of work with that a little bit… Also, I think the more we talk about death and grief the less taboo it becomes.”
Besides breaking taboos, the joy of “The Upstairs Department” is it is truly an actor’s play.
“We’re not floating through space. It’s human beings in the present day looking at each other and evaluating their relationships and evaluating their own lives in real time. Facing off like gladiators in the arena, that’s every scene.”
And the three-person cast list feeds into that feeling, not to mention the play’s director is esteemed actress Holly Twyford. Mercantel found joy in working with all of them, calling Twyford’s insight “really invaluable,” describing Jones’ as an “ethereal, commanding presence,” commending Grove’s ability to fully “show up and [be] in the scene,” and admitting that she wanted Livingston to audition for Luke’s role right from the beginning.
So if you’re looking for a direct line to the other side, pull out your ouija board, call up a medium, and swing by Signature Theatre for “The Upstairs Department.” It’s the most fun form of memento mori.
“The Upstairs Department” is at Signature Theatre through June 12. For more information, visit sigtheatre.org.
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