Prime Productions is an interesting theatre company that focuses on providing roles for women over 50 on stage and behind the scenes. The Roommate is the perfect show for this company as it provides two juicy roles for it’s actors. The show will hit a chord with women of a certain age, but it’s appeal is not limited to any demographic. As a man of a certain age, I may not have been able to identify with every aspect of the characters but that doesn’t mean it didn’t connect with me. The circumstances of the characters are specific but most of the humor is universal. While I’d say this is definitely a comedy, it’s a little less straightforward than that, which is one of it’s many charms. But there’s no point in pretending that it’s biggest charm is anything other than it’s cast who are absolutely perfect in their roles.
Sharon played by Greta Oglesby is a divorced empty nester living in Iowa City, Iowa. Robyn played by Alison Edwards has just driven from New York, “the Bronx”, and is going to be Sharon’s roommate. The play opens on move in day when the women meet for the first time. The scene is filled with awkward moments as the women begin to learn about each other. We learn that Sharon is in a reading group, has a son who lives in New York who designs women’s clothing, and he is not gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Robyn is a vegan lesbian all of which catches Sharon off guard and makes her nervous. There is a lot of humor in the way they play this scene, but also an undercurrent of suspense. There are several clues in the scene that Robyn has secrets, that something is off. Edwards plays the scenes as if she is on edge throughout it, raising our suspicions but without tipping us to what her story is. It’s a fine line and Edwards walks it well, we don’t fear her, but we know there are secrets being kept. Oglesby takes the opposite approach telegraphing every emotion and thought which is the key to her character and to making the relationship dynamic work. Oglesby needs to let us into her character while Edwards needs to keep us out for the tension to work. As the women bond, Robyn will become more accessible. Sharon we are already onboard with and remain so as she goes through changes and tries new things. When Sharon discovers that Robyn smokes marijuana, she admits that she has never done anything like that. When they sit and try it together, its one of the best scenes and one in which Oglesby is clearly having a blast as are we the audience because we already feel like we know her. The characters together are what makes the play work, some of us will identify with Sharon, others more with Robyn but there is something we can recognize in each them. Personally, I’m a total Sharon.
The Roommate was written by Jen Silverman who has a real knack for writing the awkward getting to know you dialogue that is filled with humorous moments without ever feeling jokey. Sharon is so relatable and we warm to her so quickly because she sounds and behaves like a real person. Silverman writes Robyn with equal authenticity but as a completely different type of person. Sometimes in a comedy script that’s less developed, you can give characters each others lines, or jokes and no one will notice. Silverman’s writing is character specific, they each have their own distinct voices and their lines must be spoken by them or they will not work. Greta Grosch directs the play with some interesting decisions. One is the transitions between scenes, the lights go down and stage hands come on and remove or place props and help the actors to change costumes on stage. At first this seemed like an odd choice, but I quickly found it to be the best approach. None of the changes are that drastic, they move quickly and allow the next scene to start in a timely manner. Having the actors exit the stage, change, then re-enter and restart the play would have created a choppiness to the pace that would have worked against the show. I also thought the lighting choices by Grosch and Lighting Designer Grant E. Merges were a success. Frequently the lights would come up partially on a character highlighting them within the space for a moment and then come up on the rest of the stage as the scene opened up. I really like the Set Design by BrownKnows Design, particularly the window frame and ceiling molding that gives structure to the invisible back wall of the kitchen and dining room set.
The Roommate is at its heart a comedy but it isn’t just the female Odd Couple you might be expecting, it takes some unexpected turns, some really unexpected turns. I don’t want to spoil those surprises but it is worth pointing out that we completely buy those twists because of the skillfully comic and endearing performances by Greta Oglesby and Alison Edwards. The Roommate runs through June 19th at Mixed Blood Theatre for more information and to purchase tickets go to http://www.primeprods.org/.
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