Those of us who attended college are likely familiar with the system of randomized roommates. You fill out a questionnaire with lots of surface-level questions about your personality and lifestyle—Do I have an opinion on shared food items?, I remember thinking—and in the end, you never know who you’re going to end up with. For me, it was a dance major who liked Maroon 5 too much, but for Sharon of The Roommate, Steppenwolf Theatre’s latest production, her new roommate Robyn, whom she seeks out after a divorce leaves her in need of financial assistance, brings excitement, mystery, and changes to her identity that she could never have anticipated.
At first, this expertly-written comedy seems to be essentially the tale of an odd couple: Sharon, an Iowa resident (from Illinois originally, which is very different, she insists) has had little exposure to the experiences that define Robyn—her veganism, her queerness, her pot smoking. This kind of clashing of big city/small town lifestyles is something that’s been explored before, but playwright Jen Silverman writes it with such specificity, such perfect precision, that it feels new. What’s more, there’s no hostility between the women; rather, Robyn finds Sharon’s naïveté charming, while Sharon is enraptured by Robyn’s unapologetic boldness. The genuine warmth that blossoms between them, for all their surface-level conflict, is the play’s core and what makes it so instantly loveable.
What initially seems like a simple case of mismatched personalities, however, becomes something much deeper as Sharon discovers secrets from Robyn’s past that she finds too irresistible not to investigate. What she finds, though, is more than just secrets; she finds parts of herself she never knew were possible. In this way, the script rises beyond simple comedy to wrestle with questions of identity and loneliness, without ever losing its strong sense of absurdity, a feat that is impressive to say the least.
Of course, it helps to have two such stellar actors onstage embodying this familiar, unfamiliar duo. Steppenwolf ensemble members Sandra Marquez and Ora Jones offer the audience a “master class on comedic timing,” as I overheard one audience member say after the show. Marquez captures Sharon’s sweet, sheltered mannerisms just as well as her tenacity and bluntness. Jones has a regal elegance to her that makes her a captivating stage presence, even when her more worldly character is breaking down into giggles. The two have a chemistry that puts nearly every romantic comedy’s leads to shame.
It’s rare that I even notice the lighting of a production, but light design by Xavier Pierce is so subtly beautiful, it’s difficult not to notice. Light streams into the house as though it’s sunshine through windows, and various lighting moments carefully highlight the action onstage. Costumes by Samantha C. Jones perfectly embody the two characters, whether it’s the colorful, flowy garments Robyn wears or the farm-girl skirts and blouses that make up most of Sharon’s wardrobe. Credit, too, must be given to the prop work in this show, which includes the creation of some very specific objects, several of which are destroyed.
The Roommate is exactly the sort of ninety-minute comedy you need more of in your life: smart, funny, soul-searching, and full of heart. Ditch your roomie and check out this show—or better yet, take them with you.
Location: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 Halsted St
Regular Run: July 3 – August 5, 2018
Curtain Times: Tuesday – Friday at 7:30pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm and 7:30pm
American Sign Language Interpretation: Sunday, July 22 at 7:30pm
Open Captioning: Saturday, August 4 at 3pm
Audio Description and Touch Tour: Sunday, July 29 at 1:30pm
Ticket prices: $20 – $93. Discounts and group rates are available. For tickets or more information, contact Audience Services (1650 N Halsted St) at 312-335-1650 or the Steppenwolf website.
All photos by Michael Brosilow.