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A Pair of Middle-Aged Women Try Their Hand at New Identities in The Roommate

Phylicia Rashad directs a two-hander at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Ora Jones and Sandra Marquez star in The Roommate at Steppenwolf.
(© Michelle Nolan)

As odd couples go, the women of Jen Silverman's The Roommate seem like a promising pair. Sharon (Sandra Marquez) is a sheltered and anxious Iowan homemaker whose life has stalled since her son grew up and her husband skipped town. Robyn (Ora Jones) says she moved to Iowa seeking peace and quiet, a far cry from the Bronx, where she lived an unstructured life making poetry, pottery, and whatever else caught her interest.

The city-mouse-meets-country-mouse dynamic can't last forever, so luckily it doesn't take long for Sharon to realize that her new boarder is not what she expected. And it's not just that she's a vegan and a lesbian: Robyn has dozens of driver's licenses with different names and addresses, and the "medicinal herbs" she grows in the adjoining lot aren't legal yet in Iowa. To Robyn's chagrin, Sharon is fascinated by her, and soon the Midwestern homemaker is begging for a tutorial on how to con.

As Sharon's enthusiasm for life blossoms, Marquez's ample comic talents are put on display. Even the most implausible outbursts are elevated by her uninhibited joy. Jones is strong in early scenes, particularly while navigating the minefields of Sharon's Midwestern curiosity. However, she's never entirely believable as a criminal on the run. Some of this is a failing of Silverman's script: Robyn's life of crime is a little too pat, her schemes evoking more The Music Man's Harold Hill than Breaking Bad's Walter White.

Director Phylicia Rashad keeps the focus of The Roommate on where the play is strongest: the characters and their relationship. When unimpeded by criminal high jinks, the women's burgeoning friendship is totally engrossing. Sharon wears her heart on her sleeve, but even the carefully guarded Robyn begins to open up when faced with Sharon's ardor. Sitting face-to-face across the kitchen table, these two women strike sparks.

Unfortunately, their most intimate moments get swallowed up by the sheer size of John Iacovelli's scenic design. Sharon's kitchen sprawls from corner to corner on Steppenwolf's stage, looking lovely and lived-in but impossibly large. Samantha C. Jones's costume design is more successful, building a relationship through complementary colors while reinforcing that Robyn and Sharon are both women who are used to keeping a low profile — though for very different reasons.

There are too few plays exploring the inner lives of women over 50, and The Roommate has a lot to say about loneliness and the feeling of being overlooked. Sharon takes to fraud not out of malice or because she needs the money, but because she desperately needs a new identity after losing her lifetime position of being a housewife and mother. She latches on to anything Robyn will give her, no matter how small. This is a woman who will make a casserole from crumbs. At the heart of the play, there is an excellent character study. You just have to look for it.

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