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I'm going to tell you a secret. Hidden away in the streets and alleys of downtown Durham, in an old converted packing plant, is a small but potent, funny but scary, simple but ugly little play that is guaranteed to blow your mind. The Roommate, written by NYC playwright Jen Silverman and currently being produced by Bulldog Ensemble Theater, has the simplest of bases: the acquisition, by a simple farmer's wife in Iowa, of a roommate. These two women are the only people in the play. But the bringing together of these two exceedingly diverse women is a combination similar to bringing two seemingly benign chemicals together that, in combination, are dangerously explosive.
Silverman has traveled extensively in Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia. Her plays are compact, oftentimes angry, and always subtle; the pending explosion always catches us by surprise. The Roommate made its debut at the Humana Festival in 2015; since that time, is has seen productions in NYC, Chicago, and California, including an August production at the Steppenwolf Theatre, directed by Phylicia Rashad.
This production, directed by Marshall Botvinick, uses the highly-adaptable space at Durham's "The Fruit" to set the large, rambling farmhouse belonging to Sharon, a single mother whose only son now lives in New York. Sharon (Julie Oliver) is welcoming her new roommate, Robyn (Madeleine Pabis), into her home; she is nervous, wanting to make a good impression on this strange new woman from back east, who has moved to Iowa to "escape." In making this move, Robyn has left her home in the Bronx, hoping to leave behind a great many other things, as well, which she collectively refers to as her past.
On a simple but sprawling set designed by Derrick Ivey, we find a large and comfortable kitchen, with numerous nooks and crannies containing cabinets, storage bins, an icebox, a stove, all very comfortably assembled in Sharon's long-lived-in home. The centerpiece is the kitchen table, where almost all of the action in this play takes place. The play is set in the present – cell phones being prominent on stage – but that isn't really relevant. This play could have been set in any time period since the telephone was invented.
Oliver's Sharon is in her late fifties; she tells Robyn that she "retired" from her marriage many years ago, but she says she took this action only after she realized that her husband had "retired" several years previously. Her son long ago moved to NYC, where he is a successful designer of women's clothing. Sharon tells Robyn that in New York, "everyone thinks" that he's gay, to which Robyn replies, "I'm gay." Bombshell #1. This was never brought up during the interview process. Sharon, rather than being repulsed (wouldn't any middle-aged Iowan mother be?), is intrigued.
Pabis' Robyn is also middle-aged, but she is thin and wizened, possibly from hard living; she always wears more masculine fashion (jeans and a simple top), and she smokes (though she tells Sharon she's "trying to quit")... and not just tobacco. Sharon comes down to breakfast one morning to find Robyn rolling a joint. Stopped short, she blurts out, "Are those drugs?," to which Robyn replies, "medicinal herbs." Bombshell #2. Robyn grows the stuff herself; what did Sharon think all those houseplants were? But again, rather than being aghast, Sharon is intrigued. She wants to try it. So Robyn shares her joint. At first, Sharon is disappointed; she doesn't "feel anything." But her actions tell us otherwise. In a truly magnificent scene, we see Sharon convert from a dowager farmer's wife to a wild woman, and even though we have been watching closely, the second where one becomes the other is entirely untraceable.
As the days turn into weeks, we learn a lot more about the past from which Robyn is trying to escape. She, too, has been married; they were both very young and very much in love. Robyn has a daughter, named Amanda. Interestingly, the one time Amanda called the house, when Sharon answered, Amanda asked for Victoria. Sharon, who had never before spoken with Amanda and did not know who she was, told her she had a wrong number. In various conversations, we learn Robyn has been a con artist, an auto thief, and a drug dealer, all of which, she tells Sharon, were short-lived but "very lucrative." One of Robyn's "jobs" was as a slam poet; she wrote and performed her own poetry. She tells Sharon that the first few poems one writes are pretty bad, but that "there is a certain freedom that comes from being bad."
This is a wonderfully funny and wickedly perverse character study of two disparate women who come together and discover camaraderie in each other that neither expected to find. As Sharon learns more and more about Robyn's past, she becomes hungrier to experience these various roles that Robyn took on in order to survive. Robyn allows Sharon to cajole her into "training" Sharon in how to do these things. By the end of the first hour, Sharon has been on a date (!) – during which she pickpocketed several items from her man – she is openly selling "medicinal herbs" to her friends in her book club, and she goes to Wal-Mart and buys an automatic WMD-grade rifle! It is Robyn who is aghast; she begs Sharon to "take it back!" Sharon reluctantly agrees, but only after she has convinced Robyn to hold it for a few minutes, to feel the power and the "warmth" Sharon felt from the gun.
For what are an exceedingly fleet two hours, we witness, along with Robyn, the descent – if that is even an apt description – of Sharon into the kind of woman Robyn saw in herself, and tried to lose. At the climax of this transformation, Sharon commits an act that Robyn cannot abide; she flees the room. Sharon is left alone in the kitchen, wondering to herself at her own boldness.
This play is so well-written, and so superbly performed by these two consummate actresses, that we were all completely stunned. We knew that we were witnessing a play, the program says these two actresses are playing these roles, but when we were watching these two, we never saw, even for a second, anyone but Sharon and Robyn. If at any point either actress relaxed their outer skins, we never saw it. And the interaction between these two was as natural as breathing. Despite what Sharon is becoming, despite Robyn's growing fear at what Sharon is becoming, every single interaction was pricelessly and thoroughly in character. I have not seen this level of professional skill and art on a stage in quite some time, and you can believe me when I say that's saying something. The interrelationship between these two transcended simple acting; what we experienced opening night was two women living their lives on stage. It was a powerful, dynamic, intrinsic piece of living theatre. I sit in complete awe of these two fine performers.
I have only one thing left to say: you MUST go see this play. It is so finely tuned and superbly crafted that you will not soon forget it.
The Roommate continues through Sunday, October 13. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.