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‘The People Downstairs’ returns American Stage

Bill DeYoung



Sara Oliva and Matthew McGee are star-crossed in Natalie Symons' "The People Downstairs." Photo (2020): Joey Clay.

After 18 dark months, the mainstage at St. Petersburg’s longest-lived professional theater company, American Stage, will light up again in September.

The People Downstairs, the comic drama by local playwright Natalie Symons, returns Sept. 15 through Oct. 3. Two preview performances were mounted, March 11 and 12, 2020, and theaters across the country were forced to shut down on the 13th – which would have been opening night for The People Downstairs, the story of an adult woman (Mabel Lisowski) who’s disabled and agoraphobic, and living with her eccentric, alcoholic father.

Designer Scott Cooper’s set has been in place since then – the creatives at American Stage knew that the show would, in fact, go on. They just didn’t know when.

Chris Crawford, the former associate director at freeFall Theatre, has returned to direct.

Also returning are all four original cast members: Matthew McGee (in a rare dramatic-ish turn), Sara Oliva, Allen Fitzpatrick and Terri Lazarra.

“The fact that the play is thematically about human connection, and about isolation, and about how we need to have connection and love and humor – all of those things we missed during this pandemic – I feel like the play was almost foreshadowing what was about to happen,” Symons said Friday morning.

“I feel like it will ring so much more true now than it did then, because we’re all so hyper-aware of how precious human connection is. And how vital it is.”

The playwright, who will publish a spellbinding first novel, Lies in Bone, in September, said she always held out hope that The People Downstairs would find its American Stage audience.

“Scott’s beautiful set is a hoarder’s nest, and has been sitting there collecting dust, just like the Lisowskis’ house was for many years. We basically left it there for what, 16 months? While it collected more and more dust. It’s been standing there waiting for us to come back and call ‘places.'”

American Stage’s “weee’re back!” moment continues with the official 2020-21 season: An adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (Oct. 27-Nov. 21), Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol (Dec. 8-Jan. 2), 21st Century Voices: New Play Festival (Jan. 7-9, 14-16), School Girls Or the African Mean Girls Play (Feb. 2-27), the musical Footloose in Demens Landing Park (April 6-May 8) and Shakespeare’s The Tempest (June 29-July 31).

Meanwhile, Romeo and Juliet in America (The One With the Happy Ending) is onstage at Williams Park for nine performances July 21-Aug. 1.

Still to be announced is a replacement for Producing Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte, who has declared her intention to leave the company this season for health reasons.

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