Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

The People Downstairs
American Stage
William S. Oser


Don Walker and Sara Oliva
Photo Courtesy of American Stage
In March 2020, Natalie Symons' The People Downstairs played a couple of preview performances in its world premiere production and ... well we all know what befell the world after that. The elaborate set sat unoccupied for a year and a half collecting dust, which truth to tell only made it more realistic for this particular play. American Stage was able to stream one of those preview performances over the winter/spring period, and now actual performances are taking place. The theater company is operating on a 3/4 reduced capacity, with spaced seating between unrelated groups, and temperatures are taken before admittance.

I have crossed artistic paths with Ms. Symons on multiple occasions, the first with a production of The Foreigner which starred director Chris Crawford. Since then I have seen her other plays Lark Eden and Naming True as well as several appearances with her as an actress. I believe that The People Downstairs is her richest work yet, not a comedy but still it invoked a fair amount of laughter from the audience I saw it with.

The play centers on a man and his daughter. He is not highly functioning, she has some sort of visual impairment and has secluded herself in the limited world of the home and funeral home she and her father have occupied for 71 years. A social worker is taking more and more control of their lives. This hit me like a hammer as someone in my world is going through exactly these issues, loss of personal control. Written pieces in the program by the director and the playwright helped me to open myself to the more general issues of loving kindness between people.

Don Walker plays Miles Lisowski. I have seen Mr. Walker in all kinds of performances—large parts, supporting parts—always to tremendous effect. This is the best role I have ever seen him undertake, perfect for his immense talents. A different actor was cast in this part in 2020, but I can't imagine anyone being better. If I first encountered The People Downstairs via reading the script, I am certain I would immediately picture Mr. Walker playing the part. (Now, if some theater company could find another fine role for Mr. Walker's wife, the equally talented and delightful Jenny Aldrich Walker.)

Sara Oliva plays Miles' daughter Mabel Lisowski. Just not getting blown off the stage (she isn't!) by Mr. Walker would be a feat, but she does much more. In the early parts of the play as the character hasn't yet fully engaged the audience's sympathies, she gives a powerful physical performance, her myopia fully believable. She is helped by the excellent writing by Ms. Symons and she brings this woman to life.

Matt McGee plays Todd Schneider, an embalmer who arrives to help in the funeral home and bumbles that job, but not the job of engaging with Mabel. I am fairly certain that the part was written with Matt's talents in mind, and he brings great emotional warmth to the role. Social worker Shelly Williams is played by Teri Lazzara. The character is the least sympathetic in the play. Ms. Lazzara does a fine job with the material.

Much of the credit for this fine production rests with director Chris Crawford. As an actor he is an expert comedian and exudes waves of audience-connecting warmth. His turn in freeFall Theatre's Buyer and Seller a few years back remains a vivid memory, and those same qualities are all over his direction of The People Downstairs.

Scenic design by Scott Cooper is incredibly elaborate. I would imagine it possible to see this production multiple times without noticing all of the detail lurking about. The costumes by Catherine Cann are simply perfect, helping the actors define the characters beautifully. Lighting design by Chris Baldwin is at the same high standards. All technical elements enhance the presentation of Natalie Symons' excellent play.

I was knocked out by this play, partly because it hits me on a very personal level, but also because it stands beside Lark Eden for excellence. I think it deserves to have most of its success on the regional theater circuit. This production is more elaborate than absolutely necessary, and with only four characters it could stay in budget for many companies. Sadly, the originally planned four week run is cut to two and not included as part of American Stage's subscription season. Don't let either deter you from catching what I believe will be one of the brightest memories of the first post (or almost post) COVID-19 theater season.

The People Downstairs runs through October 3, 2021, at American Stage, 163 Third Street North, St. Petersburg FL. For tickets and information, visit www.americanstage.org.

Cast:
Miles Lisowski: Don Walker
Mabel Lisowski: Sara Oliva*
Todd Schneider: Matthew McGee*
Shelly Williams: Teri Lazzara
*=Member of Actors' Equity Association


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