THEATER REVIEW: “The Roommate” at Williamstown [Berkshire on Stage]
Review 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 – currently on the boards at the Williamstown Theatre Festival – that defies expectations in many ways.
Here we have two middle-aged women: Sharon (S. Epatha Merkerson), a divorced Midwestern homemaker, has invited Bronx-native Robyn (Jane Kaczmarek) 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.)