THEATRE REVIEW: ‘The Roommate’ at WTF, with an indomitable spirit

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By Monday, Jul 10 Arts & Entertainment
Daniel Rader
S. Epatha Merkerson as Sharon and Jane Kaczmarek as Robyn in the Williamstown Theatre production of Jen Silverman's 'The Roommate' through July 16.

The Roommate
By Jen Silverman
Directed by Mike Donahue 

“clean, but very naked.”

S. Epatha Merkerson. Photo: Daniel Rader

S. Epatha Merkerson. Photo: Daniel Rader

Williamstown Theatre Festival ended its 2016 season with a dark and moody play, “And No More Shall We Part,” by Tom Holloway, starring Jane Kaczmarek and it is opening its 2017 season with her in something 180 degrees different. The change in her and in the tone she sets is literally as different as night and day and it makes me wonder how she spent the winter months and where and why she didn’t let us all know that she was available for dinner. The brilliance in her work last summer, the long death she experienced at each performance and the emotional drag on her fans that climaxed with Alfred Molina’s supportive deathwatch will never leave my soul. This July, however, it is her indomitable spirit that rules the stage, our hearts, our minds.

“The Roommate” is a very different sort of play and Robyn is a very different woman. This blonde, bratty, bossy woman who smokes, does drugs, plays the small and the big cons and generally is able to disrupt the solitary single life of a middle-aged mother is not as endearing–though she is as compelling – as last year’s Pam. In this comedy Robyn from the Bronx arrives in Iowa City to be the roommate of Sharon, a single mother whose only son is living in New York City. Neither woman is prepared to share her days with someone, let alone someone so very different from herself. What follows is an adventure for both of them, one that alters destinies and makes each of them larger than they once were, if not better.

Jane Kaczmarek. Photo: Daniel Rader

Jane Kaczmarek. Photo: Daniel Rader

S. Epatha Merkerson, as you’ve never seen her before, plays Sharon, whose home is a place of beauty–designed here by Dane Laffrey, a setting I’d happily live in–framing a beautiful woman. All it takes to permanently change that is a cardboard box, a whiff of smoke, two marijuana plants in the window and an attitude. Robyn needs to lift herself out of the world she has been inhabiting. She has found her opportunity in this very Midwest home. What is never clear is how she has found this place and this sweet woman. Sharon is not an internet mom. She has somehow placed an ad somewhere that has fallen into the hands of this New Yorker who has driven two days to get to Iowa and take up residence. Sharon has no references. Sharon has had a single conversation with Robyn. This combination is fascinating but seems to be so completely unlikely that it is hard to see it as anything but an author’s contrivance, a disappointing one at that–a TV sitcom setup.

That the outcome of this pairing is predictable is truly predictable: when opposites attract this way, there are only a few directions they can take. However, the script is so well written and the two women playing these two women are so talented, all bets are off and the resultant hour and 41 minutes are as thrilling as a roller coaster ride at a traveling carnival. Up and down they take us, sometimes with a deliberate, easy pace and sometimes with the speed of sound. A few unexpected turns along the way bring delicious, cherishable moments. While the play’s ending is cloudy, there is that hope for a gentle rain revealing a few new flowers to be tossed.

Merkerson is an ideal choice for Sharon. She brings a tissue-paper softness to the role that should make her the perfect foil for con-woman Robyn but instead, like a high-quality paper product, she absorbs and holds inside everything that the vegan, lesbian urbanite spills in front of her. Most good plays present the transitions in a life force and it is Sharon who learns and changes and grows in this play. Merkerson uses nuance and her humanity to show us just who Sharon could have been had her path been different. There is one enjoyable transformation after another in Merkerson’s work. Sharon’s staunch and stiff morality is challenged from the get-go and the actress playing her brings out the actress in her, literally merging the personality of Sharon and woman playing her. She was extremely enjoyable and so very real that her final scenes were heart-wrenching–and this in a sitcom elevates the work.

Jane Kaczmarek and S. Epatha Merkerson. Photo: Daniel Rader

Jane Kaczmarek and S. Epatha Merkerson. Photo: Daniel Rader

Kaczmarek makes a strong beginning and it is wonderful to watch that strength begin to crumble as Robyn falls under the erotic spell of a simple woman whose simplicity is hard to bear. Merkerson’s Sharon affects Kaczmarek’s Robyn in unexpected ways and the joy in the play is partly due to the intruder’s quixotic reactions to how she is affecting her host. To liken her to an infection that changes the infected would not be cruel or wrong. Robyn gets under Sharon’s skin and the resultant itch is what drives the play into those funny, awkward places. Where it all goes haywire is in the genuine affection that develops between them and Kaczmarek plays this for all its worth. Pam, last year, may have moved us by dying, but Robyn, this year, moves us by living. Kaczmarek is equally adept to playing things both ways and, in her final speech in this play she tells us more about Robyn than we have learned so far. She gets so into character and stays there that not until the curtain calls did I see Jane Kaczmarek emerge at all.

Directed by Mike Donahue, the play has a naturalism that truly makes us into the proverbial fly on the wall. We are captivated by what we see and hear and there is no way we could move into the screen porch – upstage left – or anywhere else while these two people, characters and actresses, are inhabiting the part of the house we are in. There are no moments where he himself is visible; everything is about the content of the play.

Anita Yavich’s costumes are just what the characters need to enhance, through appearance, the people they are inside. Scott Zielinski’s lighting was a bit confusing as the play moved from scene to scene. Stowe Nelson’s sound design was just right, delivering transitions beautifully.

All in all, this play produces a fine reaction from its audience, a decent response from the cynical critical observer and a perfect sense of an afternoon well spent. It is summer for these women on stage and they transform summer into an attractive fall: a fall from grace, a fall from anxiety and a fall into the autumn of our lives. Nicely done, everyone.

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The Roommate plays on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St., Williamstown, through Sunday, July 16. For tickets and information, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 458-3523 or go online to wtfestival.org.


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