Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member
You never know when a simple decision is going to change your life. You could meet the person you will marry because one day you happen to be walking on the west side of the street instead of the east. (This literally happened to me.) In Jen Silverman’s The Roommate, now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, a woman finding herself alone after a divorce decides to do something she’s never done: seek someone to share the expenses. The woman who answers her ad shifts the foundations of her naïve world in surprising and wonderfully comical ways, and her life will never be the same.
The divorced woman is Sharon (Sandra Marquez), a fifty-something woman living in Iowa City (although she insists she isn’t an Iowan since she was raised in Illinois). Stunned from the divorce and mourning the fact that her son no longer lives with her, Sharon finds her middle class conservative life unraveling. When she advertises for a roommate, she has no clue what to expect, having never had one before. What she gets is Robin, and the unraveling picks up speed.
Played by Ora Jones, Robin enters as a jumble of sometimes contradictory ideas. She is vegan and lives a healthy lifestyle, but she smokes. She is calm to the point of being zen but she has a secret she hesitates to reveal. She wishes to know just about everything about Sharon but won’t reciprocate when asked. She has a box of clay dolls she says are voodoo dolls, but then she claims to be joking. She was once a potter and a poet; now she seems to have no career at all. She’s moved to Iowa from New York to live a simpler life, but she brings marijuana with her. Sharon is, quite understandably, intrigued by this woman. After they’ve bonded over Sharon’s first-ever experience with “medicinal herbs,” she simply needs to know more.
To go any further would be to spoil some of the hilarious surprises this play has to offer as these fine actresses play off of each other in wonderfully realistic ways aided by the direction of Phylicia Rashad. Marquez’s often manic delivery contrasts perfectly with Jones’ more laconic line readings, and both seem equally ironic: the midwestern housewife rambles on and on in machine-gun form while the big city woman takes her time with every thought. Silverman’s writing is delicious: the “feeling-out” stage of the relationship is brilliantly crafted and full of laughs that just continue once Sharon has unmasked her roommate’s secret. And the play progresses toward a powerful, poignant ending, that seems well-earned also, despite the comedy that has preceded it. It’s a smart, perfectly-crafted play, and truly laudable also for creating great roles for “women of a certain age”; there are never enough such roles and this play gives us two.
My one quibble is about the set. Award-winning designer John Iacovelli has created a kitchen bigger than most living rooms, and the result is quite a lot of long walks to cross from one end to the other. It’s lovely, but it’s gargantuan; cutting it down in scope might have been a good idea. It is beautifully lit by Xavier Pierce though, and there are several lovely fade-outs.
Each decision we make in life affects us in ways we can’t possibly see until much later. The Roommate moves in such unpredictable patterns, and that makes it a truly rich experience. Like life itself, just when you think it’s going one way it throws you a curveball. It’s been a while since I attended a play where I really couldn’t tell which way it was going next; it’s refreshing. Rashad’s direction keeps the play alive at all times (even during those outrageous crosses) and Silverman’s witty and pointed writing does the rest. Your decision to go to this play may or may not change your life, but it will most certainly affect your evening: it will make it better.
The Roommate is a Steppenwolf Theatre production now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St, Chicago, until August 5. Performance times may vary; check the website at Steppenwolf Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.