BWW Review: THE ROOMMATE at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Jen Silverman's THE ROOMMATE, now playing in Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre, offers audiences a veritable master class in acting via Sandra Marquez and Ora Jones. Under the direction of Phylicia Rashad, Marquez and Jones have a touching and natural onstage rapport. The material of Silverman's play itself, however, does not exactly match the high bar of the performers. In fact, THE ROOMMATE feels rather uneven; the play dangles loose threads in front of the audience, introducing some major themes but never quite bringing any of them to fruition.
As one might surmise, THE ROOMMATE concerns a pair of roommates. Silverman's play is unusual, however, in that those roommates are two women in their 50s: the Midwestern and rather innocent Sharon (Marquez) and the hipster, former Bronx resident Robyn (Jones). I was initially unsure how Silverman would sustain 90 minutes of plot with this set-up, but the play takes a turn when Robyn's criminal past is revealed. Sharon learns that Robyn, among other roles including vegan, poet, and mother, is a former scam artist. Profoundly intrigued by Robyn's past, Sharon decides she wants to spice up her life and foray into some of Robyn's lines of business for herself.
While Silverman's set-up for THE ROOMMATE provokes interest, the play ultimately diverges in terms of its major themes. On the one hand, Sharon and Robyn both desperately long for human connection and a way to combat profound loneliness. Marquez and Jones naturally embody this trait beautifully. Yet Sharon's newfound interest in the fast life sets up a dichotomous path based on the pursuit of adrenaline and the thrill of less-than-ethical activities. Silverman doesn't quite manage to bring these two possibilities for what it means to be alive together in the play. Thus, THE ROOMMATE left me feeling discombobulated. I didn't know whether to lean into the play's more earnest emotional points or the hypothesis that an adrenaline rush (whether legal or illegal) is all one needs to feel renewed.
The production values are nothing short of spectacular. John Iacovelli's scenic design is stunning; he has created a sprawling Idaho apartment with old-fashioned charm and eye-catching detail. While the space feels entirely real and lived in, Rashad's staging doesn't take full advantage of all the room to play onstage. Samantha C. Jones's costume designs give both characters unique senses of style that resonate with their backgrounds, and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's sound design has some delightful aural surprises that add to the actors' energy.
Although THE ROOMMATE does not appear to have decided exactly what it wants to be, Marquez and Jones are far more self-assured in their roles. Marquez oozes sincerity and honest curiosity about her new roommate. She is consistently animated and has a spark that illuminates the stage. Jones has a more grounded but still captivating energy as Robyn, which makes audiences genuinely hunger to learn more about her character. Together, Marquez and Jones find multiple layers within their characters as the play's stakes grow higher, even if those stakes are murky. These two veteran performers clearly know how to command the stage--and that is by far the most compelling reason to see THE ROOMMATE.
THE ROOMMATE plays through August 5 at Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted. Tickets are $29-$93. Steppenwolf.org
Photo by Michael Brosilow