Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The Upstairs Department
Signature Theatre
Review by Susan Berlin

Also see Susan's review of John Proctor Is the Villain

Joy Jones
Photo by Christopher Mueller
As audiences for The Upstairs Department enter the ARK Theatre at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, they see a serene room bordered by dark red curtains (viewers sit on all four sides), photographs of people from various eras, and an overhead canopy of leafy branches that supports flickering lanterns. Scenic designer Paige Hathaway and lighting designer Annie Wiegand are welcoming the audience into a hushed space where visitors can seek resolutions of the issues raised by life and death–the heart of Chelsea Marcantel's lovely play.

While the questions are eternal, Marcantel approaches them from an up-to-the-minute perspective, embodied by three talented actors and directed with subtlety and great empathy by Holly Twyford. The production is a world premiere, the 60th in the company's 32-year history.

Luke (Zach Livingston) was an ordinary guy, rooting for the Chicago White Sox and drinking beer with his sister Colleen (Annie Grove), until he contracted COVID. Their father died from the virus; doctors put Luke in a medically induced coma and, when he was revived, he had acquired what he believes is a psychic ability to communicate with the dead. So now he and his skeptical sister have traveled to Lily Dale, a community in New York State centered around the practice of spiritualism, to learn what might be going on and how he can channel it.

While all three actors evoke the complexities of their sometimes contradictory roles, the heart of the play is Shiloh (Joy Jones), the medium who works with Luke and Colleen. Jones radiates serenity through her luminous eyes, her elegant stillness, and her flowing costumes (designed by Ivania Stack), in contrast to Luke and Colleen in their worn T-shirts and jeans. Shiloh does not try to convince anyone of anything; she simply draws out what she perceives beneath the surface and explains how she is different from supposed psychics doing cold readings before a crowd. (The "Upstairs Department" is her term for the spirits who have moved to the "other side.")

In the uncanny world created by Marcantel and brought to life by the actors with the help of Wiegand's pinpoint lighting and Kenny Neal's haunting sound design, the main issue is not whether it is possible for the living to communicate with the departed and receive answers; it's about making connections and finding comfort. As Shiloh explains, "Most people cannot reason their way out of grief."

The Upstairs Department runs through June 12, 2022, in the ARK Theatre at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington VA. For tickets and information, please call 703-820-9771 or visit

By Chelsea Marcantel
Directed by Holly Twyford

Shiloh: Joy Jones
Luke: Zach Livingston
Colleen: Annie Grove