At City Theatre’s production of Jen Silverman’s The Roommate, the program cover is a sketch of a tipped over coffee cup, the spill spreading into the shape of a pot leaf. Before the show even starts, you already know this is no ordinary Bounty commercial.
Sound designer Elizabeth Atkinson gets everyone rocking pre-show with a rousing flashback feast of 1980s female empowerment by blasting Madonna and Pat Benatar. It’s a timely and appropriate blend as the show’s only two characters are both women in their 50s, putting them solidly in their 20s during the 1980s. Tony Ferrieri’s fastidiously detailed set design of a home’s kitchen and the accumulated details of life provide an accompanying visual feast. It’s both a specific home and everyone’s home – framed pictures trotting up a staircase, plants perched on the kitchen windowsill, decorative plates hanging above a pantry door.
In some ways, the same could be said of the play’s two characters. Both women struggle with their own version of the status quo. Sharon (Tamara Tunie) is a retired divorcee with a grown son living a thousand miles away. Her day’s highlight seems to be starting a fresh pot of coffee, and you already know her obituary won’t be memorable. Costume designer Gina Cercone appropriately dresses Sharon like she’s on the cover of a middle-aged women’s magazine at a dentist’s office with coiffed hair, reading glasses dangling on a decorative chain, bland clothes, and ever-spotless sneakers. Sharon’s motivation for seeking a roommate doesn’t seem to be financial. She’s not pressed for the cash cohabitation creates, but seems to desire company. Ultimately, it is as simple as the craving for someone to share in and witness our lives.
Robyn (Laurie Klatscher) is the new roommate, inexplicably moving from the Bronx to Sharon’s Iowa City home. Robyn has long grey hippie hair, and she’s vegan and a lesbian. Or “homo-sexual” as Sharon says, which director Reginald L. Douglas has Tunie carefully pronounce as two words to illustrate Sharon’s sheltered existence. Robyn is initially vague about her past, speaking generally about being a potter and a slam poet. She’s a visual foil to Sharon as Cercone dresses Robyn in flowy harem pants and printed kimonos, often leaving her barefoot.
Sharon describes herself as “nosy and persistent” as she continues to pepper Robyn with personal questions. However, Sharon seems more genuinely curious than nosy. It is as if she’s in the presence of something that is entranced her with its uniqueness, and she wants to figure it out. Sharon leaves a voicemail for her son and whispers with wonder that Robin “says do and then she does.” It is as if this thought has never occurred to her, and yet Sharon is an archetype. Most people live stunted lives in different ways, finding reasons to not do. As her fascination with Robyn deepens, Sharon opens a box of clothes Robyn still has not unpacked. Sharon tries on one of Robyn’s hats and shrugs into a fringed leather jacket she shimmies in. She pretends to be a poet, even signing fake autographs. Douglas keeps Sharon from swerving to the creepy by keeping Tunie earnest with midwestern naivete.
Sharon eventually gets Robyn to reveal she was a con artist, a profession she is trying to shake off with her relocation to seemingly innocuous Iowa. Sharon immediately wants to follow suit, using Robyn as a model to redefine her identity. Robyn somewhat reluctantly doles out coaching on conning. Sharon starts (literally) feeling the thrilling highs of success as they start selling pot, but Sharon fails to recognize that it’s not a binary: boring shut-in, or law-breaking con artist drug dealer.
Sharon bounces from one extreme to the other, belatedly trying on this identity. It is almost as if she assumes it must fit because it’s so different from her dead-end past. She never acknowledges the jail-time risks she’s taking, blindly heading towards a mirage that seems to operate outside of the bounds of law. Her sudden and complete lack of caution doesn’t feel like a completely credible leap after 50+ years of living, especially when she’s urging Robyn that they recruit a 12-year old to help sell pot brownies. Between scenes, lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski has the lights in Sharon’s home blink in a colorful disco pattern. It feels forced and incongruous with Sharon’s ever-orderly Iowa home, even as her character goes rogue.
Early on, Robyn says rather exasperatingly, “Stop mummifying yourself.” Sharon’s awakening is a nudge reminding us all to keep growing and push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. Try that new restaurant, explore that park, welcome spring, and go see The Roommate. Learn more about the show, which runs through March 24th, and buy tickets for City Theatre online.
Tiffany Raymond has her PhD in 20th Century American Drama from the University of Southern California where her research focused on labor and social protest theatre. She also has two master’s degrees, one from the University of Southern California and one from the University of Tennessee. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her family. In addition to being a theatre nerd, she’s also a tech geek, avid reader and occasional half-marathon runner.
Categories: Archived Reviews