As different as chalk and cheese…or not?
Sharon is a 54 year old divorcee, long resident in Iowa City, Iowa, but who always notes that she’s originally from Illinois – a distinction that rates with her but is somewhat lost on others. Straying from home seldom and systematically to go to her reading club and shopping, her life is routinized to death. To help ends meet, she lists a room in her home for rent that is picked up sight unseen by Robyn, another 50ish divorcee, just arrived from the Bronx and looking for a new start. From this premise, a sparkling two-hander follows. Funny with dark edges, two sensational actors engage us throughout a buddy story and figurative road adventure that never leaves Sharon’s house.
Playwright Jen Silverman creates two characters that differ radically in their outward behaviors and attitudes. Susi Damilano demonstrates why she has earned so many acting awards as she embodies Sharon with nuanced charm, revealing her conventional attitudes, naïveté, and diffidence. Resigned to finishing her days without even occasional blips of excitement, her greatest regret is that she can’t seem to connect with her son who has resettled to Brooklyn.
Julia Brothers, another decorated actor, fits well in Robyn’s skin – mysterious, distant, and abrupt. From the outset, Robyn is as hard edged as Sharon is soft focused, and as closed as Sharon is open. Except for asserting that she is gay, Robyn conceals her background by frequently redirecting conversation. A seeming web of contradictions, she is vegan but smokes and claims to have been a potter and a slam poet but practices neither currently.
Predictably, the women overcome their differences enough to establish a line of communication. One common thread is their finding that the adult child of each speaks only in the present tense with the mother – relegating long-distance phone calls to a recitation of current events rather than a sharing of relationship memories or plans for the future. The storyline setup allows so many plot possibilities that the actual direction it takes is not predictable. Sufficient tension and plenty of humor yield an entertaining evening.
Sharing interesting vignettes from the play would be too revealing. Suffice it to say that the playwright is concerned with mid-life challenges such as rejuvenation and with living parts of life that have been previously missed. She also acknowledges that random events color our lives. We may be closer to the edge of an unexpected route or destiny than we realize. Sharon is confronted with situations that jolt her social and moral compass, but at a time when she is receptive to change. At that point in the action, Damilano masterfully brightens up to show a new side of Sharon’s personality and becomes as giddy as a teenage girl invited on her first date.
The play also looks at how people can become bound and stereotyped by the words that describe them and the need to reach beyond their restraints. As Robyn says, “People find words for themselves, but sometimes, they’re not right.”
The script of The Roommate is funny and thoughtful but not without flaws. Although pacing should vary in a play, the slow stretches in this one go on a little too long at times. Also, Silverman twice introduces evocative props that should play a role in future action, but they never reappear. Director Becca Wolff orchestrates fine production values. Company stalwarts Nina Ball and Jacquelyn Scott’s scenic design and props respectively convey the Iowa farmhouse motif well, while Robert Hand’s lighting and Theodore Hulsker’s sound are striking and highly effective in adding rich layers to the staging.
The Roommate by Jen Silverman is produced by San Francisco Playhouse and plays at its stage at 450 Post Street, San Francisco, through July 1, 2017.