Talk about a lengthy out-of-town tryout. The People Downstairs, a dark comedy by Bay Area playwright Natalie Symons, premieres this week at American Stage.
The story of a nearly-blind agoraphobic named Mabel Lisowski who lives with her alcoholic mortician father, Miles, The People Downstairs was introduced as part of American Stage’s 2018 New Play Festival. The company made Symons an official playwright-in-residence, her play was worked on and workshopped, and subsequently received a choice Mainstage spot for Spring 2020.
With Chris Crawford directing, the show was polished and poised, and previews were held for full audiences March 11 and 12 of that year.
On Friday, March 13, theater across the country closed because of the rapidly-spreading coronavirus. That was to be Opening Night for The People Downstairs.
There was no Opening Night.
That comes this Friday, Sept. 17, after previews tonight and Thursday. The director is back, the playwright remains involved, and three of the show’s four original cast members have returned.
The Lisowski apartment set retained untouched and unlit for 18 months.
RELATED STORY (March 13, 2020): Natalie Symons’ ‘The People Downstairs’ premieres at American Stage
“In a way, it felt like no time had passed,” admits Matthew McGee, who plays Todd, the milquetoast mortician’s assistant who forges an unlikely bond with Mabel. “But there’s so much different about being back in the room. You don’t meet the whole staff – you only meet them on a screen. They’re Zooming in to say hello. You’re separated, or you’re masked. It is different and the same, all at the same time.”
Says Orlando-based Sara Oliva (Mabel). “There were times when I’d be onstage rehearsing with Matthew, my mouth is moving, I know all the words, and I’m thinking ‘How is this happening?’ I don’t use the word lightly but I think it is somehow miraculous that we are all here.
“And this is something, honestly, that I’m going to be telling my grandchildren … when does this happen? You spend all this time workshopping a new play, you delve into the characters, you close the day of opening and then you come back and you have this opportunity to do it all again.”
The story: Miles (new cast member Don Walker) has been assigned an officious social worker (Teri Lazzara) because his mind is going, and he’s having trouble meeting life’s demands.
Into the mix comes Todd, an unlikely ally in the battle against fear, loneliness and raging against the night.
“It’s a play about connection,” McGee says. “We spent most of our time during this pandemic really focusing on all the things that are different about each other. And this play is about the things that are universal. These people in the show are people you know, or they’re family members. Everything they go through is very real, and it can happen to anybody.”
Despite the pathos, The People Downstairs, both actors stress, is chock-a-block with deep laughs.
“There’s a fragility to life, but there’s a resilience,” Oliva believes. “And this really is a comedy, but the line between laughter and tears, we’re talking razor-thin. I think that’s what this play does so beautifully. You can have that empathy. The loneliness, it’s palpable, but it’s also a celebration. And there’s a new vitality, a different energy, now.
“Now, I think this show has so much more resonance. And there’s so much more gratefulness. Matt said ‘What do you appreciate most about this show?’ I said ‘I’m grateful to be alive, and to be here, and to be able to tell this story, considering everything that everybody’s been through this last year and a half.”
Not that resurrecting Mabel and Todd after 18 months didn’t take some work.
“When I do shows, I always say I dump my cache, because I get rid of the lines from my head, just like in a computer sometimes,” explains McGee, one of the bay area’s hardest-working thespians. “I did not think we would ever come back and do it. Todd was gone.
“I had an idea what the character was like. Natalie wrote it for me to kind of play on some of my strengths, but also show people different sides of what I do. So the character was there. But the words – and there’s a lot of them – that’s been taking a little bit of time to get in there, and stay in there, and not let anything throw you. There’s only four people in the show, and all they do is talk.
“It’s been a real exercise to try and put it back in your head. And a real exercise in concentration, and a real exercise in memory. And I enjoy having those opportunities to do that.”
This production will mark the first time, in 18 months, that both actors have been on a stage, indoors and in front a real audience (which, by American Stage mandate, must be masked; the front row will also remain empty, for added distance between guests and performers).
“The only thing I did during the pandemic was drag, because I could do it virtually,” McGee laughs.
Oliva took the time off – sort of. “I did not do theater,” she says. “I couldn’t get behind the Zoom. Instead, I turned to film and TV – I produced, I wrote, I acted. I was out of the country for two months with my family that lives overseas.
“But I always had this script nearby.”
Details and tickets here.