Over morning coffee in her Iowa home, a lonely divorcée confides to her new roommate, a woman in a biker T-shirt and chunky black boots fleeing her life in the Bronx: “I guess everybody wants to start over. Just burn it all down and start over.”
Burning it all down and starting over is not easy to do. But that is precisely what both of these women, at loose ends in midlife, try to accomplish in Jen Silverman’s engaging The Roommate, a well-cast two-character dramedy deftly brought to life by director David Koté at Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville (through October 20).
The Roommate at first feels like it might turn into an edgy, female odd-couple comedy. But the play soon evolves into a deeper exploration of personal transformation and emotional intimacy. As the housemates discover each other, it becomes increasingly interesting to watch them discover themselves.
Sharon, who recently “retired” from a flatlining marriage, needs a roommate to share expenses and — at least as important — to end the painful isolation in her empty house. She’s fascinated by her openly gay tenant, Robyn, and eager to get to know her. She’s so eager that she secretly paws through Robyn’s belongings and discovers a batch of fake driver’s licenses in a box.
What gives? Under Sharon’s persistent questioning, Robyn eventually reveals that she was earning a living as a con artist. Dealing pot had also “sporadically, definitely been lucrative.” Although she now wants to clean up her lawless habits, she introduces Sharon to “medicinal herbs” and, when the aromatic smoke clears, a new worldview.
As Robyn, longtime Atlanta actor Megan McFarland enters the house with a pile of moving boxes and tons of emotional baggage. McFarland is perfectly believable as a taciturn, urban gay woman and guilt-free scammer who has bilked many victims yet remains sensitive about her daughter telling friends that her mother “lives in another country.”
McFarland, always a pleasure to watch, finds the humor in Robyn’s dialogue without sacrificing the character’s authenticity. She tackles Silverman’s clever script with just the right tone, as when Robyn declares, “You might not know this from looking at me, but I’m very, very good with cars, both jacking them and stripping them down. . . . But finally in the end, auto theft just ended up not being time-cost-effective.” Silverman can be hilarious.
As Sharon, Atlanta-based Broadway actor Terry Burrell is convincing as a chatty suburbanite who has always played by the rules. But, after learning about Robyn’s money-earning criminal escapades and finding herself intrigued, Sharon wants to start over. Her second chance at life includes a fresh perspective on intimacy.
Silverman’s script requires a delicate dance as Sharon lets go of her old moves and steps toward a previously unconsidered way of social interaction. Sharon tests both herself and Robyn’s level of interest. Burrell handles this complexity like the pro that she is, showing us Sharon’s surprise at her own feelings and her struggle to manage them.
Koté establishes a brisk, restless energy for Sharon, who tries to hide her nervousness, and a quieter, self-contained aloofness for Robyn. He also takes advantage of some wonderful small opportunities for defining the characters. When Sharon touches Robyn’s arm as they sit at the kitchen table, Robyn notices and coolly leaves the room. Such moments have a cumulative effect, making their developing relationship more credible.
Interestingly, Silverman specifies in her published playscript, “This play welcomes diverse casting. However, having Sharon played by a white actor and Robyn played by a black actor will replicate certain worn racial tropes that this play does not intend. Please avoid that particular combination in your casting. (The reverse, however, can work quite well.)” Koté chose the latter to beneficial effect.
He also heeds Silverman’s advice in terms of balancing comedy and life’s everyday tragedies. “The play is often funny,” Silverman says in notes in her script, “but don’t think of it as pure comedy. The humor comes from a dark and often lonely place, which keeps Sharon’s escalating choices from feeling like absurdist flourishes. The second the play tips into ‘broadness’ or ‘farce,’ it loses its heart.” Aurora’s production has a clearly beating heart.
Emmie Phelps Thompson’s costumes, especially Robyn’s decidedly unfeminine wardrobe, nicely reflect the characters’ personalities. Scenic designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have created a casual kitchen complete with a round farmhouse table and chairs on a braided rug. The blue sky visible above the kitchen ceiling hints at Iowa’s wide-open spaces and cornfields. The scene-change music, however, can announce itself intrusively, at one point darkening much too dramatically.
Can Sharon’s domestic life — she’s bored and sad and ready to start over radically — become just as exciting as that of her free-spirited,“medicated” housemate? It’s an experiment that may or may not pay off. In The Roommate, the tenant-landlord relationship implies risks that homeowner’s insurance does not cover.