Review: THE ROOMMATE at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Review: THE ROOMMATE at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Pictured (l-r): Ora Jones and Sandra Marquez. Photo by Michael Brosilow

By Elizabeth Ellis

When you first see the set for Jen Silverman’s THE ROOMMATE at Steppenwolf Theatre – a giant, gorgeous kitchen in a rambling house – you know the story unfolding isn’t happening in an urban environment. Indeed it isn’t; it’s Iowa, which is just far enough away from Chicago to feel a little unfamiliar. It’s in this slightly alien setting where two very different women begin to forge a friendship, and expand their thinking in the process. With superb performances from two members of Steppenwolf’s ensemble and thoughtful, sensitive direction from Phylicia Rashad, THE ROOMMATE is a gentle exploration of friendship that begins later in life, with the kind of person you might never have expected to meet.

The big, old home in Iowa City belongs to the shy, divorced fiftysomething Sharon (a magnificently restrained Sandra Marquez). Coming into Sharon’s life from a place as foreign as the Bronx is her new roommate, the reserved Robyn (the wonderfully nuanced Ora Jones), and the well-wrought trope of opposites coming together forms the basis for the plot. Though similar in age, Robyn is a gay vegan poet who throws her own pots and grows her own “medicinal herbs” (“Herbs only become drugs when a capitalist economy gets involved,” quips Robyn). Sharon considers herself old, belongs to a book club with other ladies of a certain age, and has limited experience with the world outside her community. As they learn about each other, Sharon finds Robyn unique and exotic, and Robyn begins to relax around this woman in whose home she now resides. Sharon’s curiosity pushes her to snoop through boxes of Robyn’s possessions. When she discovers elements from Robyn’s less-than-spotless past, she is even more drawn to this woman so different from anyone she’s ever known. A tentative friendship begins, and while Robyn takes baby steps to open up, Sharon enthusiastically adopts aspects from Robyn’s life. The two start an “herb business,” and Sharon asks for guidance on how to engage in phone scams, one of Robyn’s previous shady endeavors. As Sharon begins to break free of her previously simple but dull life, Robyn realizes that as much as she likes Sharon, her influence on her is starting to veer towards negative. The play ends with somewhat sad changes, but not sadly.

It’s fabulous to see two women embody fully-formed characters who meet and forge a friendship based on their own personal needs, and not because a strange twist of fate has thrown them together, nor because they have a common romantic interest nor relationship with a man. Jones and Marquez, both marvelously talented actors, possess such onstage charisma that the audience invests decidedly in both of them. Silverman’s script doesn’t delve deeply into what circumstances bring them together — why does a woman from as far away as the Bronx move to a location like Iowa City to live with a total stranger? Why does a woman who lives on her own bring in a total stranger to share her home? It sounds like a storyline involving witness protection, but that is not made clear. The stakes for each character also aren’t particularly high, so if Robyn chooses to leave or Sharon asks her to leave, neither would lose too much. Both characters start out trusting each other, instead of warily choosing to earn each other’s trust, which limits the opportunity for dramatic conflict.

John Iacovelli’s kitchen-dining room set is small-town perfection, down to the Mason jars and sun-dappled porch. Samantha C. Jones’ costumes offer a natural contrast between Sharon and Robyn: Sharon is comfy shoes and pastels that scream Wal-Mart, where Robyn is flowing tunics and colorful caftans. Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s evocative music varies from folky guitars to soulful ballads and beautifully delineates the changes in scenes.

THE ROOMMATE offers an excellent opportunity to see two of our finest actors in juicy, fun roles, and to see a character-driven story based on a demographic that isn’t well-represented in theatre today.

THE ROOMMATE runs through August 5th. For more information visit steppenwolf.org.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.

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