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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Roommate
By Bruce T. Paddock

Is that what you think of me? That I'm a person who always says, "Don't"? Robyn just says, "Do." And then she does! — Sharon
(L to R): Jane Kaczmarek & S. Epatha Merkerson. (Photograph by Daniel Rader).
The more I learn about Jen Silverman, the more impressed I am. This gay young playwright(she's in her thirties) has turned out an amazing number of plays and garnered heaps of praise. I count eight full-length plays, two fellowships, a couple of grants, and a slew of awards, all since late 2014.

The Roommate had its world premiere at Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival just 16 months ago. Since then, it's been produced in Baltimore, Costa Mesa, California (South Coast Rep), San Francisco, Chicago (Steppenwolf Theatre), and now it's at Williamstown.

Silverman wrote The Roommate because she was bothered by the fact that there are very few leading roles for women in their fifties. Her goal was to create two fully realized characters that weren't just sidekicks or background.

Short answer: She succeeded. Wildly.

Sharon lives in a big, old house in Iowa City. She's recently divorced and retired. Her grown son has moved to New York, and she needs to take in a roommate to bring in a little extra money.

Enter Robyn, eager to ditch the Bronx for Iowa City. She, too, is single and has a grown child, a daughter. How she connected with Sharon is never made clear and doesn't need to be. Why she wants to leave her old life behind is made clear throughout the course of the play.

S. Epatha Merkerson, best known perhaps as Lt. Van Buren on Law & Order plays warm, nurturing Sharon. Jane Kaczmarek, the mom on Malcolm in the Middle, plays tough, independent Robyn. When they first read the script, both actresses thought they'd be playing the other role, given the types of characters they're usually offered. Both leapt at the chance to head in a different direction, and do so successfully. Sharon and Robyn are not just characters, they're fully realized human beings, and everything each actress says and does tells us something, or several different somethings, about them.

Merkerson's Sharon has led a sheltered, by-the-book life in Iowa. But the departure of both her husband and her son has upended that life and she finds, to her own surprise, that she wants it to change even more. Merkerson's portrayal is sympathetic and endearing, and she manages to get huge laughs from simple lines such as, "This is Iowa."

Sharon is an open book, but Kaczmarek's Robyn is a locked diary, at least at first. When she arrives at the house, she gives away nothing, meeting Sharon's frequent questions with short, uninformative answers. But as she gets to know Sharon, she drops her defenses and reveals more and more of herself.

Of course, the best acting can't save a bad play. Fortunately, The Roommate is of the same caliber as its cast. It is always grounded and real, even when its characters' actions border on the absurd. Ultimately it's a heartbreaking tragedy, but it's also funny as hell.

A note about the casting: When the play debuted in Louisville, it starred two white actresses. The Steppenwolf production starred a black woman and a Latina. At Williamstown, one is white and one black.This is possible because there is nothing in any of the dialogue to suggest either woman's ethnic background. It's refreshing to encounter two characters so unencumbered by race.

Having tapped two actresses and a playwright at the top of their games, WTF has done right by them. Dane Laffrey's set — the kitchen, eating area, and screened-in porch of the Iowa City house— is a beauty. I'd be happy to live in it myself, although I'd probably want a larger oven. Lighting designer Scott Zielinski bathes that set in beautiful natural sunlight and realistic nighttime indoor light. Anita Yavich's costumes are true to the characters and also fun, especially Robyn's. And for whatever reason, I adored Kaczmarek's wig.

It's reasonable to assume that we'll be hearing much more from and about Jen Silverman in the coming years. Don't miss this opportunity to find out what all the fuss will be about.

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The Roommate by Jen Silverman
Directed by Mike Donahue
Cast: Jane Kaczmarek (Robyn) S. Epatha Merkerson (Sharon)
Scenic design: Dane Laffrey
Lighting design: Scott Zielinski
Costume design: Anita Yavich
Sound design: Stowe Nelson
Stage Manager: Lindsey Turteltaub
Running Time: 101 minutes; no intermission
Williamstown Theatre Festival Main Stage; 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA
From 6/27/17; opening 7/1/17; closing 7/16/17
Reviewed by Bruce T. Paddock at July 1 performance

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