Review: Playwright Natalie Symons Scores Another Winner with THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS at American Stage

It's Ms. Symons' Masterpiece.

By: Sep. 26, 2021

Review: Playwright Natalie Symons Scores Another Winner with THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS at American Stage

"Clean your gloomy glasses so the world don't look so dark..." --a line from THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS

We all know where we were in March of 2020, right before the world changed due to the global pandemic. I was ready for an amazing weekend of theatre, led by the premiere of Natalie Symons' THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS. And then, so memorably for all of us, the world just stopped; live theatre died momentarily; and I as a reviewer and a theatre lover was trapped with nowhere to go and very few theatres to attend (live streaming did not count). On top of all of that, I had already seen Natalie Symons' other shows over the years--The Buffalo Kings, Lark Eden, Naming True--always wondering when her works would get the national exposure that they deserve. And now her latest foray was denied me, denied us.

In the meantime, last summer I was privileged to read Ms. Symons' first novel, the superlative thriller Lies in Bone, a page-turner with just the right amount of Ms. Symons' quirkiness; I highly recommend it. In fact, I recommend it so heartily that you should stop reading this review, order it off of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or wherever books are sold, and then come back. I'll wait...

...Okay, now that you've ordered your copy of the novel, let's get back to THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS...

Over a year passes, and I'm more than excited for the return of live theatre, and more importantly, for the proper premiere of THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS. I was all set to go to American Stage last week, when all of a sudden the show was cancelled for that Saturday, the day I was scheduled to attend. Déjà vu along with PTSD of the previous year set in, and I wondered: AM I EVER GOING TO SEE NATALIE SYMONS' LATEST WORK? I felt like I was trapped in an episode of The Twilight Zone, or like the middle class zombies in Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and instead of not being able to eat dinner like Bunuel's farcical Bourgeoisie, I was denied my fix of Natalie Symons' work.

Thank goodness the third time turned out to be a charm. Because I saw THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS last night, and all I have to say is...Natalie Symons has done it again. Actually, she has more than done it again; she has exceeded herself. I always thought The Buffalo Kings was ripe for the national mainstream, and now I'm sure THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS is. (If not, there is no justice in this world.)

As I drove home last night, I felt such joy re-living the show in my head, wary that my foot was tap-dancing on the accelerator as I flew down I-275. The show runs one more week (it ends on October 3rd), and you need to experience the story, the snappy dialogue, and best of all, those Natalie Symons characters that are so fully dimensional, so eccentric yet so real. Symons inevitably gets comparisons to Tracy Letts, Neil Simon, and Beth Henley, with a smidge or two (or three) of Flannery O'Connor-style quirkiness thrown in for good measure, but that's not always fair. Ms. Symons is a true original, with her own voice and her own warped view of the world. Yes, you're going to get people with emotional deficits or physical ailments or deformities, but you're also going to get so much heart and soul.

Make no mistake, this is Ms. Symons' masterpiece.

In THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS, two lonely souls, an elderly widower, Miles, and his shut-in middle aged daughter, "Mad" Mabel, live in their Buffalo NY home--a house that is a hoarder's paradise and a nightmare for anyone suffering from O.C.D. He's the custodian of a funeral home, and she suffers from a severe impairment of the eyes. But life is soon going to change for them, thanks to Shelley, a court-appointed guardian, and Todd, a third-rate mortician and lovable loser. All of these characters are not only lonely, but they have a desire, a need, to be seen by the world, to experience life in all of its low points and high exuberances. They need to connect, to "L-I-V-E live!" (as Maude calls it in Harold and Maude). We, the audience, are mere flies on the wall watching them in all their ignominies and glories. And, quirky as much of it is, it's about as heartfelt as theatre gets.

"Mad" Mabel is one of the most unforgettable characters I've ever encountered, and Sara Oliva gives one of the finest local performances not just of this year but of the past several years. (She has to duke it out with Nick Hoop in Jobsite's Hand to God for the best performance that I've seen this year.) Watching Ms. Oliva in this star turn will tug at your heartstrings and also give you so much hope. You'll want to skip down the aisles after this show, much of that because of what happens to this beautifully drawn character played to perfection.

Ms. Oliva's Mabel is quite a piece of work--part Lisa Loopner nerd, part Eunice from The Carol Burnett Show, and part Joy/Hulga from Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People." "I serve no purpose in life," she sadly admits at one point. "I show no promise." But we know that's not true. You feel so much love from her for her father, a protective love. You'll also feel her need for connection for another person, whether one of the inmates that she dictates to over a tape recorder or with the mortician Todd, but we also understand her fear of closeness as well. She's so used to her confined loneliness that she knows of no other life, like someone getting used to a lost limb; it's part of what makes her her. There is a scene between Mable and Todd in Act 2 that's just about as lovely as life and theatre get. Their budding friendship and possible romance never gets schmaltzy and never feels forced. We don't want it to end.

I've seen Ms. Oliva onstage only once before--in a small role in American Stage's Between Riverside and Crazy a few years back, and her Church Lady scene in that was one of the most memorable of that year. She's gone beyond that here. Even during the brilliantly clever scene changes, she never drops her character. Acting students from local high schools and colleges need to see this show mainly to see this actress in action, to see her choices, to see what it's like to always sustain a character for nearly two and a half hours. Her Mabel is not hapless; she's filled with so much verve, so much inner life, that we root for her the whole time.

Ms. Oliva is so believable with her impairment that you really do believe the actress is blind or nearly blind. All of the performances are top-tiered in THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS, but it's hers that I take with me, that I hold onto. If Salieri is the Patron Saint of Mediocrities at the end of Amadeus, then Ms. Oliva's Mabel is the Patron Saint of Loners and Shut-Ins. She will break your heart more than once, but she will also give hope to all of those lonely people, those on the cusp of existence, the forgotten lot, the invisible, the downtrodden, the Eleanor Rigby's of the world.

The other performances are also sensational. As the patriarchal Miles, Don Walker hits just the right notes. There's always a surprise with him, something unexpected. I love how he provides his own mimed rim shots after telling a joke, and his daughter, Mabel, returns the gesture.

Teri Lazzara breathes so much life into what could be a thankless role (of Shelley); when you think about it, she's not that different from the despicable Mr. Linder in A Raisin in the Sun. She walks upright in this home of broken people, and she comes across snooty almost, a good foil in such squalor, like one of the therapists from the O.C.D. Institute versus the hoarders in an episode of Hoarders. We are pleased whenever she slams the door in a huff as she exits.

And then there's Matthew McGee as Todd. I've seen Mr. McGee in so many shows over the years, where he's often in drag or portraying outlandish character roles; he's always the high point of every show he's in. But I think I like him here best of all, where he plays a schlub, a man who means well but has the constant ability of ruining your day without even trying. And yet we love watching his every move. The role was written with McGee in mind, and he's so likeable without having to push it. It's exquisite work. There is a moving monologue that he gives that defines loneliness and the need to be seen, where his character discusses pushing "walk" buttons over and over so that he can cross the road just to be seen, even if it's just by strangers in cars. And when Mr. McGee tells this story, we see him almost break down. We have to wait a long time for his entrance--like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh--but with this performance, it's certainly worth the wait. His connection with Mabel is a thing of beauty, and the actor matches Oliva's excellence note for note. This isn't the flashy, show-stealing Matt McGee role we may have come to expect. This is far richer. The actor reaches deep within himself and creates nothing short of miracles. It's a gorgeous performance and proves yet again why Mr. McGee is a theatrical necessity in our area.

I first saw the show's director, Chris Crawford, in a Natalie Symons show--The Buffalo Kings at freeFall. He portrayed a devout Christian, and the part became that rarity, a non-stereotype who wasn't overly pious or shown to be hateful. It was a breath of fresh air. Mr. Crawford understands Ms. Symons characters maybe better than anyone other than the playwright herself, and he's the perfect man to bring this work together. The pacing is fabulous--starting slowly and then we find ourselves tangled in the plot and can hardly catch our collective breath.

The set is one of Scott Cooper's greatest accomplishments, which is saying quite a lot. It's cluttered, grungy, the type place you might expect to find a murder victim from Se7en in. The wallpaper peels, and we see the outlines of missing pictures (a great touch that would be missed by a lesser scene designer). Chris Baldwin's lighting is superb. In the scene changes, we see the light always in motion, never stopping, and it's a galvanizing effect. Catherine Cann's costumes play an important part in creating these marvelous characters; I especially like the choice of t-shirts for "Mad" Mabel, including The Doors and Def Leppard. And the music choices, many of them songs by Johnny Cash, provide just the right touch.

American Stage is doing all it can to keep audiences safe from the Covid-19, where all performances are reduced capacity and everyone in the audience wears masks. (Don't worry; the actors don't don masks and are far enough away to be safely socially distanced from us.) If there's any qualm I had, it was with the American Stage air conditioning unit; there was no escaping the September heat, not even inside the theater. (I'm sure this will be fixed by the next performance.)

Natalie Symons has a winner here. She just needs to break through to the national level, and THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS should be the play that does it. It has everything you want in a show: Laughter, tears, bizarre stories, memorable characters, and even a dog on the loose. I've been cheerleading Ms. Symons' work for several years now, and the world needs to see what we here in the Bay Area already know. She's the real deal, a true original, a writer with a vision, an artist who isn't afraid to go for broke, a quirky comedian who has a surprising dark world view mixed with so much heart. She's got it all, and her time is now.