The Roommate, a 2-woman play, is currently in its Chicago premiere production by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in The Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, through August 5, 2018.
Written by Jen Silverman, 2015, directed by Phylicia Rashad, with scenic design by John Iacovelli, costume design by Samantha C. Jones, lighting design by Xavier Pierce, and sound design by Rob Milburn and Michaell Bodeen, this play delivers the laughs, but in the form of a semi-slick modern tragedy with elements of mystery. Starring ensemble members Ora Jones and Sandra Marquez, it’s an entertaining 100-minute performance sans intermission that sent this reviewer out with some interesting questions to ponder- I won’t provide spoilers herein.
Iowa City 50ish former housewife and self-identified retired mother Sharon (Sandra Marquez) is an empty–nester; her husband “left the marriage before he left me”, and she can’t admit her New-York based son is gay; she can hardly reach him by phone. She works at a charity shop one day a week, has a book club meeting another, and that’s about it for her boring life. In the first act of what becomes a startling transformation, too rapid to be entirely believable, she’s taken in a roommate of the same age sight unseen: Robyn, a lesbian vegan cigarette smoker from Brooklyn (Ora Jones).
Robyn brings with her multiple alias identities, which Sharon discovers in the form of divers driver’s licenses when rifling Robyn’s possessions. Robyn also moves in a small indoor garden of marijuana plants, and a box of “voodoo” vases; she claims she used to be “a potter”.
Very quickly, an unlikely friendship develops, with admiration from Sharon, and amused condescending tolerance from Robyn. “Herbs only become drugs when a capitalist economy gets involved”, is the line Robyn tosses off when she gets Sharon high on weed. Other “Robynesque” mottos are “There’s great liberty in being bad” and “Everybody wants to burn it down and start over”. Sharon admits she kissed a girl in college; Robyn confesses she’s estranged from her own daughter, Audra, also a New Yorker, who used to be her compatriot in crime. As Robyn’s self-revelations about her life as a scam artist are shared, Sharon is the one who casts off all the constraint of her former personality, and emerges seemingly without any limits or moral compass. When Sharon tries to embrace Robyn romantically, the jig is, as they say, up.
The questions arise as the grim- or is it sweet- ending settles. Who was Robyn? Who coerced whom? What partner in this odd couple went too far? Who protected whom? Had either woman genuinely changed? What will happen next? Under the skillful direction of Rashad, Marquez and Jones shine in engaging portrayals of two complex and concealed personalities. The script is smart, as we are taken into a con within a con, crafted with wit and an eye for nuance. There were a lot of transitions for these actors to make in a brief period of time, requiring subtle and not-so-subtle changes in their demeanor, bravado, behavior toward each other, attention to their offstage offspring. This was by no means an easy script to put across; deceptively open, it was instead uneasy and unsettling.
For information and tickets to al the fine productions at Steppenwolf Theatre, go to www.steppenwolf.org
All photos by Michael Brosilow