Search the Chicago theater listings far and wide this summer and you will find very few productions with two 50-something women at the center of the production, if any (and no, Cher doesn’t count). Steppenwolf Theatre’s The Roommate, a new play by Jen Silverman under Phylicia Rashad’s direction, on through August 5, not only features these two central roles, they are its entire cast.
Ora Jones as Robyn and Sandra Marquez as Sharon star as a New Yorker and an Iowan, respectively, who find themselves roommates in Sharon’s spacious country home; why, exactly, is never explicitly stated, but we learn that Sharon is a divorced empty-nester with a grown son living in the Big Apple who fills her time with her “reading group” and a part-time job at a local shop. Seems entirely plausible that she placed an ad on Craigslist to fill one of the empty rooms and earn some extra money in the process.
Robyn, a free-wheeling lesbian vegan from the Bronx, arrives with a bit of mystery, as she alludes to various past experiences and professions but skirts most of Sharon’s questions about her life, that Midwestern kindness and curiosity on full display. Soon, the two women are into a bit of a routine: Sharon makes coffee in the morning and even gives Robyn’s almond milk a try in hers; Robyn brings home a record player after Sharon says she doesn’t listen to much music.
And for about the first two-thirds of the play, that’s about all that happens. As we learn more about Sharon’s strained relationship with her son (whom she weirdly goes out of her way to convince us isn’t “a homosexual”) and Robyn smokes the weed she’s growing in the window, I found myself wondering more than once just why, exactly, we were being told this story in particular. Silverman makes a concerted effort to keep the show from devolving into a slapstick, female version of the Odd Couple, for which I am grateful. The script is still infused with plenty of laughs, most of which the audience enthusiastically indulged in, no matter how predictable or regional they may be (would an audience on or off Broadway find the jokes about New York as funny?).
Eventually, a bit of story unfolds as Sharon discovers there’s more to Robyn than meets the eye; without spoiling the reveal, suffice it to say that her move to Iowa was likely to remove herself from some sticky situations back East. With this new truth about Robyn revealed, I found myself hopeful that here is where the real tension, the stuff we can really sink our teeth into, would be found. Unfortunately, no such pot of gold is waiting at the end of this rainbow. The women talk their way through Robyn’s past and Sharon’s fascination with it, and while it does cause a rift in their friendship, it all feels too fleeting to really empathize with either of them.
It could be argued that vanilla ex-housewife and mother Sharon goes on the more compelling journey of the two; she certainly changes the most over the course of the 90-minute production. But her evolution is tempered by Robyn’s stagnation, and the whole play suffers from stakes that never get quite high enough to cultivate a potent, lingering return after the curtain call. Perhaps this lightweight story is just what a summer theatergoer is looking for; or perhaps, like The Doppelgänger and The Minutes before it on Steppenwolf’s main stage, The Roommate could benefit from some adjustments to its central conceit that add a layer or two of nuance to its narrative.
The Roommate is now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, through August 5. Tickets run $30-$55 and are available online here.
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