By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
I suppose once we’ve settled into a way of life, we’re all a little afraid to rock the boat and, God forbid, start over. The latest offering from Everyman Theatre, the East Coast debut of The Roomate by Jen Silverman and Directed by Johanna Gruenhut, gives us a glimpse into what could happen if that’s what a couple of middle aged ladies must do. A coming-of-age story about two middle aged women? Yep! That’s right! Much like a modern day Odd Couple, these two characters couldn’t be more different but have so much to offer each other, whether they know it or not.
Though the story is a little predictable, as it has been told many times before, it still holds a certain charm and a slight twist at the end that I was not expecting. It’s simply a story of self-discovery and stepping out of your comfort zones and the production at Everyman Theatre is smart, modern, and poignant.
Everyman has always impressed with their sets and The Roommate is no exception. Set Design by Timothy R. Mackabee is striking and authentic. Much like the Midwestern state in which the play takes place, the set doesn’t have too many level but is flat and expansive as Iowa itself. The details are impeccable from the running water to the magnets on the old refrigerator and makes one feel “at home” as if they were sitting in their own kitchen. Though there is more than enough cabinet space, there’s not much in the way of furniture (other than kitchen appliances and a kitchen table and chairs), and the stage is very maneuverable making for a very good flow to the action. There aren’t a lot bells and whistles but it’s simply a very quaint, almost boring kitchen that actually makes this set design near perfect and absolutely appropriate.
Lighting Design by Jesse Belsky for The Roommate is nothing short of flawless. When it comes to a play, technical subtleties really make or break a production and Belsky hit the nail on the head. The use of lighting to distinguish morning, afternoon, and evening is stunning and I could tell exactly what time of day it was simply from the lighting. Working with the set and casting shadows all over the stage gives the design a very realistic and cinematic vibe that works well with this piece. Both interior and exterior lighting is spot on and sets the mood for each scene. The design is well thought out and adds significant value to this production.
I must take a moment to mention the phenomenal Sound Design by Stowe Nelson. Nelson’s impressive work is a definite technical highlight for this production. Somehow, Nelson manages to play with the sound and the acoustics in a way I haven’t seen, yet, on the Baltimore stage. Notably, he magically takes a localized sound cue (a radio or record player) that’s playing in a corner of the stage, as part of the scene, and gradually throws it into the audience over the PA system, filling the entire theatre. Mostly used during transitions, this “trick” gives the feeling of watching a film on the silver screen rather than sitting in a theatre with live actors. Major kudos goes to Stowe Nelson for his outstanding design.
The Roommate is set in present day and Costume Design by Sarah Cubbage was well thought-out and appropriate for the characters. Displaying their polar opposites, Cubbage’s choices are very clever, matching a leather jacket, jeans, and boots on one character to a more conservative, blouse, slacks, and flats on the other. The two different wardrobes complement each other very nicely and express the differences the two ladies have.
Director Johanna Gruenhut is to be commended for her work on this piece. She really seems to understand the story and gets her actresses to tell it convincingly. It’s sometimes difficult to keep up the humor in a serious piece, but Gruenhut manages to keep everything light and breezy while not taking away from the emotional soul of the piece. She keeps the action moving smoothly onstage with her smart blocking and the transitions are seamless. Gruenhut presents a well though-out and beautifully cast piece.
Moving into the performance aspect of The Roommate, Beth Hylton, an Everyman Theatre Resident Company member, gives an thoughful and heartfelt performance as Robyn, the somewhat crass uprooted Brooklyn native trying to find her way through a very different Iowa. She brings an appropriate edginess to this character that fits wonderfully. Though, at first glance, I couldn’t believe she was a middle-aged woman, I quickly realized she’s not playing the stereotypical middle-aged woman, but a confident, independent woman who sees age as just a number. She’s very comfortable on the stage and with this character and seems to understand the inner turmoil her character is experiencing and she has a complete grasp on the reasons her character is so mysterious making for an enjoyable and commendable performance.
Deborah Hazlett, another Everyman Theatre Resident Company member, gives an outstanding performance tackling the role of Sharon. Her authenticity shines through from the moment she sets foot on stage and she really has a grasp of her character, a Midwestern middle-aged divorcee. Her comedic timing is on point and the gradual transition of her character is presented flawlessly. She has a commanding stage presence and moves comfortably and with purpose throughout the production. Though both characters are changed by the end of the story (which is inevitable for these types of characters in this type of show), Hazlett’s character has the greatest change and she pulls it off with great emotion mixed in with just the right amount of comedy.
The naturalism these two actresses have bring the audience into the story and make these characters accessible. It’s easy for the audience, both men and women, to find aspects of each character to which they can relate making for a very gratifying evening of theatre.
Final thought… The Roommate is a funny, yet poignant tale of starting over and discovering new things about the world and yourself when you think your life and the world is just about over. Self-realization and change can come at any time and when you least expect it, you just have to be open to it. This production at Everyman Theatre is worth an evening of your time and, who knows? You may discover one or two things about yourself!
That’s what I though. What do you think? Feel free to leave me a comment below!