The first thing I told my friend upon the conclusion of San Francisco Playhouse’s production of “The Roommate” was this – “Wow, that’s a lot to unpack.”
The irony of that statement was completely lost on me. This play, from the moment that the two 50-something women engage in their first awkward exchange to the powerful conclusion of their newfound bond, is all about unpacking the literal and symbolic boxes that line the stage. As each box is opened, new secrets are discovered. And with those secrets, especially for the straight-laced Sharon, endless possibilities await.
Those possibilities are unpacked with absolute precision in Jen Silverman’s fantastically written play, a production unified beautifully by the stupendous direction of Becca Wolff. It’s a piece that kind of stays with you, and the more you analyze what was just witnessed, the more stunning the story becomes.
Sharon (a magnificent Susi Damilano) has fallen into a bit of a slump. She is merely taking up oxygen in her Iowa home, and her entire existence seems to hinge on walking by places where people do things, when she goes out at all. I guess you can say it’s another way to get caught up on her window yoga shopping. There’s also a reading group she is a member of, which isn’t really fulfilling her zest for adventure. Throw in the fact that the thing she is most known for, being a mom, is a bit hard since her son lives in New York, but that’s not really the problem. It’s more about the fact that he doesn’t pick up his phone, might be gay and might be dating a lesbian, but there’s no way that can happen, because he’s, well, her son. Not exactly solid logic, but hey, at least she’s got those yoga classes.
Her lack of spirit or ambition is challenged greatly by the entrance of Robyn (a striking Julia Brothers), formerly of the Bronx, someone who Sharon refers to constantly as a “homosexual person” as if being gay needs some kind of qualifier. Robyn is someone who has an affinity for homegrown marijuana, which Sharon refers to as drugs, which I guess is technically true, but still feels weird to hear as it relates to a joint. Robyn is also evasive in her reasoning for leaving the Big Apple for the vast expanses of Iowa. That piece of their early discussions are quite comical considering Sharon is painfully curious about every little detail, and just might be the kind of roommate that can drive one crazy.
Robyn also loves other forms of alternate living and refers to herself as a slam poet. All of this, for some reason, fascinates the hell out of Sharon, right down to her growing love for Robyn’s vegan milk in her coffee.
The 105-minute, no intermission production starts off with a strange energy, playing a bit on the presentational side. But this is really the brilliance of Silverman’s quirky and staccato script, assisted greatly by Wolff’s fantastic direction on top of Nina Ball’s masterful scenic design. The play initially moves in the spirit of the classic Neil Simon play “The Odd Couple,” right down to the little detail where Sharon pulls out an aerosol can to extinguish the funk of Robyn’s regular cigarette. Even when moments get a bit more serious, the humor and balance of the script still maintain its richness.
The play continues to unpack its brilliance and gets a bit more serious, and the adorable Sharon, who we thought we knew, begins to find more and more intrigue into unpacking Robyn, in both literal and figurative ways.
Now this is where I need to be very careful. The rest of the story I have no intention or desire to spoil. All I can say is that each moment that unfolds is wonderful, starting with Sharon’s supposed search through Robyn’s things, looking for an apple peeler. From this moment on, situations that felt predictable were not hindered by said predictability; rather they unfolded in such truthful and organic ways.
Such a nuanced script and its production are only possible with the absolute brilliance of both Damilano and Brothers. Their work reveals itself very early on and continues to move through space with confidence and truth. Damilano in particular plays her role with a naïve, charming warmth, a complex woman in a constant state of arrested development who evolves beautifully throughout the piece. Yet as she learns more about Robyn, and as Robyn learns more about herself, both women yearn for more in their lives. More laughs and more adventures, and an absolute refusal to be pigeonholed.
And why should they? Silverman argues brilliantly in her script that a woman in her 50’s is just as much a woman as in any part of her lives. Does Sharon need to be only identified in maternal ways? Of course not. Is Robyn too old to know better? I guess so.
But in these modern times, badass women in their 50’s are still badass women.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Francisco Playhouse presents “The Roommate”
Written by Jen Silverman
Directed by Becca Wolff
The Word: A play full of laughs, self-discovery and poignancy, the production directed by Wolff is brilliant and beautifully unified.
Stars: 5 out of 5
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA
Through July 1st
Tickets range from $20 – $125
For tickets, call (415) 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org