REVIEW: “The Roommate” at Williamstown

Vetting The Roommate

by Barbara Waldinger

A play bearing the title The Roommate evokes visions of college dormitories or New York City apartments, unaffordable for young people living alone.  Perhaps the characters started as friends, perhaps they are strangers, but for sure the sparks will fly between them before the first act is over.  But Jen Silverman has written a play that defies expectations in many ways.   Here we have two middle-aged women:  Sharon, a divorced Midwestern homemaker, has invited Bronx-native Robyn to move into her Iowa home.  And although sparks fly, it is not in the way one might expect.

As playwright Silverman asserts, the play is about transformation—both characters choose to change their lives by making space for a new, completely antithetical person.   Sharon’s son’s lesbian girlfriend, who lives with him in New York City (he’s a women’s clothing designer–NOT homosexual!) describes her as boring and judgmental.  Indeed, Sharon’s only activity, besides calling her son whom she misses terribly, is her book group or, more high-mindedly, “reading group.”  Robyn, whose initial entrance signals trouble, thanks to her black leather jacket, jeans and boots (the costumes are designed  by Anita Yavich), is a lesbian, vegan, slam poet, former potter and scam artist, who likes to “grow things” (like marijuana plants).   While Sharon can’t imagine Robyn’s life in the dangerous Bronx, the seemingly fearless Robyn, upon hearing that there are tornadoes in Iowa, is ready to bolt.  In the course of the play, the women influence each other to reinvent their lives.

The Roommate is a comedy of character, not heavy on plot.   Silverman has a fine ear and a distinctive voice that is at once natural and very funny.  Because Sharon has lived such a sheltered life, she is like a child eager to explore this new world that Robyn brings with her.  A self-described “nosy and persistent,” woman, she justifies her curiosity as part of a “mother’s line of work.”  With her gift for dialogue the playwright invites us to uncover with Sharon the many secrets that Robyn attempts to hide.   (The only lines that don’t seem organic are those in which Sharon speaks out loud to herself, as when she rifles one of Robyn’s private cartons, and announces what she finds.)

The actors (S. Epatha Merkerson as Sharon, Jane Kaczmarek as Robyn) give rich, multi-layered performances.  When we first meet Sharon, she is a defensive, insecure, stuttering, giggling housewife, whose husband “retired from her marriage before she did.”  Faced with the alien Robyn, whom she had never met before inviting her to share her home, she tries desperately to cover her shock by comically putting a positive spin on everything she sees and hears.   Upon learning that Robyn is a lesbian, Sharon reveals that in college she once kissed another girl, and has no problem with gay marriage.  Gradually the growing connection between the women enables Sharon to gain confidence, as she discovers happiness, strength, energy and many talents—some quite socially unacceptable, by the way–that she didn’t know she possessed.

Kaczmarek’s Robyn, who comes to Iowa to escape from her past and start anew, does not smile for the first few scenes.  She is suspicious, tough in her physical mannerisms and language, evasive, hostile, always ready for a fight.  Silverman describes the character as someone who will not let another human get close to her.   But as the women begin to share their stories, Robyn allows herself to open up, to express her longing for the daughter who rejects her, to smile, even to dance.  Thanks to each of these talented actors, two characters we have come to care about have freed themselves from the chains of their past.  Witnessing their transformations reminds us of what the magic of theatre is all about.

Mike Donahue directs with a firm and confident hand, having directed a previous staging of The Roommate at Actors Theatre of Louisville.  Silverman describes him as a great dramaturg, who challenges her to “interrogate the limits of what can be.”  He is also not above making counter-intuiti choices.  He surprised both actors with their role assignments.  According to Merkerson, “I’m playing a character who is quite different from me.  I’m really opinionated and decisive.  I’m my own person.  Whereas [Sharon] is a little more dependent on those around her.”   And Kaczmarek  remarks:   “When I read the script for the first time, I assumed I was being asked to play the part that Epatha is playing.  That kind of nurturing, Midwestern sensibility is something I’m very comfortable playing.”  But both appreciated the opportunity to stretch their considerable abilities.

The set, designed by Dane Laffrey, is gorgeous.  Who wouldn’t want to take home this Iowa kitchen, with its beige cabinets filled with dishes, bowls, etc., wooden countertops with an overhang and stools, sink, stove, refrigerator (with magnets!), microwave, an island with a shelf filled with jars and pots beneath, windows with curtains, table and wooden chairs with white pads on the backs and seats, sliding glass doors to a lovely porch with bamboo shades, straw furniture and greenery?  Director Donahue appears as attentive to the details of the set as he is to the text and the characters.  Even the music, designed by Stowe Nelson, reflects the characters’ changes, from a CD sent as a Christmas present by Sharon’s son, to rock albums played on a record player bought by Robyn.  The passage of time between scenes was cleverly suggested by a sound somewhat like a musical mobile, blowing in the wind, and by the lighting design of Scott Zielinski.

In an interview with the arts writer of Louisville’s Courier Journal, Silverman described the process of creating The Roommate as a collaboration, taking advantage of any idea that works, inviting conversation in the rehearsal room and not shying away from risk.  How many of us in middle age would like to change the direction of our lives?  Silverman has given us a play filled with humor, regrets and surprises, from casting to performance that has universal appeal.

The Roommate runs from June 27—July 16 on the Main Stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival.  For tickets call 413-458-3253 or online at wtfestival.org.

Williamstown Theatre Festival presents The Roommate by Jen Silverman.  Cast: Jane Kaczmarek (Robyn) and S. Epatha Merkerson (Sharon).  Director:  Mike Donahue, Scenic Design: Dane Laffrey, Costume Design:  Anita Yavich, Lighting Design:  Scott Zielinski, Sound Design:  Stowe Nelson, Stage Manager:  Dane Urban.  Running Time:  one hour forty-five minutes without intermission; at the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Main Stage (62’ Center for Theatre and Dance, Williams College campus, 1000 Main Street (Route 2) Williamstown, MA.) from June 27; closing July 16.

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