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.
Pictured: Laurie Carter Rose and Ellen Phelps. Photo by North Shore Camera Club.
By Elizabeth Ellis
Iowa City is just far enough off the beaten path to seem foreign to most urbanites, and a great place to escape if you need to disappear for a while. But what if the place you desire to escape from, figuratively, is Iowa City? In Citadel Theatre’s lovely production of Jen Silverman’s THE ROOMMATE, with sensitive and engaging direction from Beth Wolf, two excellent actors explore the difficulties and rewards of creating friendships as adults, and how different life experiences can guide the way to build bridges instead of divides.
The reserved, divorced fiftysomething Sharon (Ellen Phelps, in a wonderfully layered performance) lives a small, sedate, and predictable life in a big old home in Iowa City, and while not actually “old,” she considers herself so. Sharon finds herself in need of a roommate, and answering that need from a place as foreign as the Bronx is the edgy and mysterious Robyn (the cool and compelling Laurie Carter Rose). Though similar in age, Robyn could not be more different than Sharon: she’s 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). As they begin to learn about each other, Sharon finds Robyn fascinating, and completely different from any of her contemporaries. Sharon’s curiosity pushes her to investigate Robyn’s boxes of possessions. When she discovers multiple elements from Robyn’s checkered past, instead of distancing herself, Sharon is even more drawn to her enigmatic new roommate. As they take steps towards friendship, and while the ever-cautious Robyn takes baby steps to open up, Sharon quickly and enthusiastically adopts aspects from Robyn’s life. The two start an “herb business,” and when Sharon discovers one of Robyn’s previous shady endeavors (phone scams), she doesn’t shy away from that knowledge but instead asks for guidance on how to become a successful phone scam artist. As Sharon begins to bloom and break free of her previously simple but dull life, Robyn realizes that as much as she likes her roommate and the calm and stability she offers, Sharon’s influence on her is starting to shift towards the negative. The play ends with separation, and somewhat sad changes, but not sadly.
Eric Luchen’s simple kitchen set brings absolute authenticity to anyone familiar with small towns in the Midwest, down to the “welcome” sign above the door. Lily Walls’ costumes make Sharon seem appropriately plain, and morph the elegant and patrician Carter Rose into a gritty New Yorker.
It’s a treat to see two wonderful actors embody fully-developed 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 in a man. Some limitations occur—Silverman’s script doesn’t delve deeply into what circumstances bring the two women together. For instance: why does someone from as far away as the Bronx move to a location like Iowa City to live with a total stranger? What happened in Sharon’s life that made her decide to bring in a total stranger to share her home? How did the two discover each other? It sounds as though Robyn is a participant in 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. Even with these questions, the excellent work by two veterans like Phelps and Carter Rose hold the audience’s interest. This is a production absolutely worth seeing.
THE ROOMMATE runs through March 3. For more information visit citadeltheatre.org.