Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Roommate

Laura Jane Bailey, left, and Jamie Jones are excellent in the Capital Stage production of “The Roommate,” running through July 21. Charr Crail/Courtesy photo
It is unusual to find two meaty roles for over-50 women, much less one written by a 20-something playwright. Jen Silverman has created such a play, “The Roommate,” now at Capital Stage, directed by Dena Martinez.

This very funny play examines what can happen when a lonely, middle-aged woman takes in a roommate for companionship and to share expenses. Playwright Silverman feels that “Women of that age group are rendered invisible or they are played in ways that are harmless, infantalizing, and I want the audience to see potential for transformation that lies in themselves.”

For the play to work so well, it needs two excellent actresses to bring these two characters from paper to life. In Laura Jane Bailey and Jamie Jones, Capital Stage has just that.

Bailey is Sharon, who has “retired from her marriage” and who has a son, who may or may not be gay, whom she rarely sees. She fills her time with her “reading group” and a part-time job at a local shop. Though she is originally from Illinois, she is now an Iowan and may be the stereotypical view of any middle-aged woman from Iowa. I’ve been to Iowa. I have met Sharons. Bailey nails it.

Throughout the play, you realize the importance of Rebecca Redmond’s costume designs. Sharon starts out in a simple cotton dress, the kind you’d find in The Vermont Country Store catalog. As the play progresses, her dress becomes less dowdy and more current until her final costume, which is — well — amazing.

The play takes place in Sharon’s kitchen, which is perfectly depicted by scenic designer Eric Broadwater.

To help fill her big empty house, Sharon rents a room to Robyn (Jones), who says she wants to “start over” and through most of the play is hiding something that eventually comes out.

The “getting to know you” scenes are so funny, as Sharon begins to understand the kind of woman who has moved into her house. She thought that her new roommate was from upstate New York, not the Bronx (“Isn’t the Bronx dangerous … and you’re, I mean, a woman”).

Robyn starts to understand what it’s like to live in Iowa. She is amazed that Sharon never locks her door.

“It’s pretty safe here, except for the tornados,” Sharon tells her. Robyn never thought of tornados.
Robyn is vegan and a lesbian, a big adjustment for Sharon. “I don’t have any problems with homosexuals … I think, you know, gay rights! Let them marry! … Some of my son’s friends are homosexual people. Probably most of them. I think most New Yorkers are.”

Robyn also smokes pot — “medicinal herbs” she calls it. “Herbs only become drugs when a capitalist economy gets involved.”

She offers Sharon a joint, which she decides to try. “Am I gonna hallucinate?”

As the days pass, the women become more comfortable with each other. Robin’s story begins to unfold and without spoiling the reveal, suffice it to say that her move to Iowa was likely to remove herself from legal situations back east. Sharon is fascinated with Robin’s past life, and she begins to look at her own life in a different way.

The conversations between these two actresses and their rapid-fire responses make time pass very quickly. Bailey and Jones are a delight to watch, and Silverman’s dialogue is pure magic. The women are warm; they are funny; they are real people forced to overcome some of their earlier choices and learn how they want to spend their later years.

Better not to reveal how each is changed by the other since that is a surprise for all. I will admit that there are a couple of things at the end that I found confusing, but mostly it is a logical conclusion, and I’d love to see how both women are going to be in another five years.

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