Jen Silverman’s new play, The Roommate, now in its West Coast premiere at South Coast Rep, presents two women in their mid-fifties, whose bloom of youth has faded with the inevitable decline of old age a decade or more in the future. All the action takes place in the kitchen of a comfortable home in Iowa City, Iowa, about as middle as Middle America gets. At lights up, Sharon (Linda Gehringer), the owner of the house, and Robyn (Tessa Auberjonois), her new roommate, are schlepping in boxes of stuff, some stacked on the porch slightly off-stage right, and some brought into the kitchen. Sharon, anxious to be friendly and welcoming, has a wide-eyed, pleasant demeanor. Robyn, a New Yorker from The Bronx, is edgier and quicker of speech than the amiable Sharon. It is a situation of first meeting, which always has a certain degree of tension. Each person tries their best to get to know the other without missteps.
The opening scene reveals some commonalities in their lives. Both have a child with whom it is difficult to communicate. Both have been married and divorced. And each has fears and misconceptions. Sharon wonders about the dangers of living in New York. Robyn becomes horrified at the thought of tornados. Sharon tries to dispel her fears by telling her that it’s really no big deal, “If you hear that big old siren you just go down to the basement.”
Sharon dotes on her son, a fashion designer who lives in Park Slope Brooklyn. She reveals that, “Everyone thinks he’s homosexual, but he’s not.”
Robyn responds, “I’m gay.” That has Sharon sputtering and backpedaling, as she tells Robyn, in essence, that she is okay with that.
Sharon has had a sheltered life; she has never had a roommate, never listens to music and her social life consists of a reading group and a one-day-a-week job at a shop. Robyn, on the other hand, is mysterious, revealing little of herself at first. When asked what she does, she replies with vagueness. She says she does a lot of things—writes poetry, grows things. During the hundred-minute run of this dark comedy, the women grow close, opening to each other in surprising ways. Sharon blossoms and becomes daring, while Robyn starts to reveal her secrets. Under the direction of Martin Benson, Linda Gehringer and Tessa Auberjonois are a joy to watch as their character trajectories weave in and out with the requisite conflicts and misunderstandings.
John Iacovelli’s scenic design, with lighting by Brian Gale, is an impeccably realistic rendering of a Midwestern home. A scenic alteration late in the performance is true theatre magic. Costume design by Angela Balogh Calin reinforces character and situation, as does Michael Roth’s original music/soundscape.
The Roommate runs through January 22 at the Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.