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Theater Review: "The Roommate"

Tessa Auberjonois and Linda Gehringer in South Coast Repertory's 201​7 ​production of ​The Roommate.
Photo credit:
Debora Robinson

Back when I was 50-some, I wrote a poem about the way women magically seem to become invisible when they hit the big five-oh.

Now playwright Jen Silverman has picked up that theme and created a one-act two-hander about two women in just that situation.

Billed as a mash-up between “Thelma and Louise” and “The Odd Couple,” it takes place in Iowa City, where midwesterner Sharon (Linda Gehringer), following the breakup of her marriage, has taken on a roommate named Robyn (Tessa Auberjonois) to share expenses. 

It’s easy to see how different these women are just by their clothes (credit costume designer Angela Balogh Calin).

Sharon is blonde, a little disheveled and lived-in looking, and dresses in what I’ll call midwestern housedress style, with tennies. She goes to a book club and has a BA in English, but says she doesn’t understand poetry.

Robyn is from the Bronx, wears jeans, a tank top with a selection of long-sleeved shirts on top, bangle bracelets and heavy, clunky shoes. She wears glasses and pulls her gray hair back in a bun. Oh, and she’s gay, vegan, uses almond milk and says she writes slam poetry. (Sharon doesn’t know what slam poetry is.)

Each woman has an unseen kid; Sharon a son and Robyn a daughter. Neither kid seems eager to talk to mom.

The immediate question arises: why would Robyn move from New York City to Iowa? She’s never quite willing to answer that question, but as the play proceeds, we learn that she has several secrets that she divulges on a need-to-know basis.

For example, Robyn reveals that she “used to be” a potter and comes with a box full of what appear to be clay voodoo dolls.

She notes that “I thought maybe I’d raise bees, or sheep” here in Iowa, when what she’s really talking about is planting “medicinal herbs” (yes, that one). Sharon’s horrified look prompts this comment: “Herbs only become drugs when a capitalist economy gets involved.”

Though Robyn has her own, undisclosed agenda, she is slowly drawn into Sharon’s greater openness and willingness to try something new. You can see (in some cases even predict) the comedic possibilities here, and these two actors play them up nicely. 

South Coast has given “The Roommate” a sparkling production. Director Martin Benson has two fine actors, who make the most of the material they’re given.

John Iacovelli’s expansive set and spectacular, detailed lighting by Brian Gale are especially notable. Michael Roth’s original music and soundscape make fine contributions as well.

The greater question at hand is how much people actually do, can – or should – change, and what the result might be.

Silverman has said she wrote this play partly because she’d never seen one starring two 50-plus women.

That situation has now been remedied. The problem is that – without giving it away – too many of the changes we see are not credible.

Still, Silverman has a nice stash of quips (like Robyn’s “Life is mostly about being charged the full amount”) to keep the audience amused.

“The Roommate” plays through Jan. 22 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

The details

“The Roommate” plays through January 22, 2017 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Tuesday through Sunday at 7:45 pm;  matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org