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BWW Reviews: Silverman's THE ROOMMATE Gives 39th Humana Festival a Stellar Start

Jen Silverman's "The Roommate," a new one-act about isolation, second chances and the consequences of our choices, is as tragic as they come - and it's a tragedy that subtly grows beneath peals of uproarious laughter.

The first entry in Actors Theatre of Louisville's 39th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays is an intimate piece of work that will hit home on many levels. You know these people. You're familiar with their foibles, are comfortable enough with them to the point that nothing - not even the sudden brandishing of heavy weaponry - seems a stretch, and you just know within this first few minutes that it's not going to end well.

In a small, sleepy Iowa town, Sharon has taken in Robyn as a roommate. The buttoned-up 50-something divorcee is happy to have the company and extra money, but doesn't quite know what to make of the exotic vegan from Brooklyn with the entrepreneurial spirit - though Robyn is just as likely to dodge any questions about what exactly it is she does as she is to offer her new landlord her first taste of almond milk or "medicinal herb." Both neglected - perhaps even shunned - empty-nesters, they provide each other the motivation to re-engage with life. But when Robyn's many, many secrets come to light, they embark on a partnership that will change them both, not necessarily for the better.

Silverman's script does a wonderful job of capturing the modern anxiety of being surrounded by choices and never quite feeling that you've made the right ones. She gives us a pair of characters caught at a similar point in life, yet diametrically opposed in their respective crises. Sharon has stalled out after being left by a husband who lost interest and a son with ambitions only a city the size of New York can accommodate. Conversely, Robyn has run out of gas after her mysterious indiscretions have left her and many others badly burned. Both isolated, both hiding their exhaustion and disappointment behind carefully constructed appearances, they pull each other toward a middle ground on which they live on their own terms. They make a good go of it, even flipping roles as Sharon becomes more childlike and Robyn has to set boundaries she never obeyed with her own daughter. It's a fascinating look through the next-door neighbor's kitchen window.

Margaret Daly (Sharon) and Tasha Lawrence (Robyn) create great chemistry as they navigate the perils of a friendship that requires lowering the walls life has demanded they build. Daly draws great humor from fighting her small-town self-consciousness to relate to Lawrence's free-spirited bohemian, and gets even more laughs as she dives into the sorts of schemes that look great in TV and movies, mainly because they never have any real consequences. When those consequences arrive and leave her alone for the final 15 minutes, it's positively heartbreaking to see the toll they take.

Director Mike Donahue provides an understated touch, imperceptibly but meticulously guiding Daly and Lawrence through their initial niceties and subterfuge and ratcheting up the pace to near-farcical levels as the action intensifies. Andrew Boyce's simple platform set and kitchen accoutrements let the actors do the great work they do here, including making as grand a mess of it as they do their lives by the final blackout. Daniel Kluger's kitchen utensil percussion soundscape contributes to the mood and pace as the scheming begins.

This is challenging piece of storytelling, and the ending in particular makes it worthy of a place in this festival. Though the final few sequences flirt with melodrama, Silverman avoids providing any sort of neat, tidy, pat resolution and leaves the proceedings at a place that, though unsettling, makes perfect logical and emotional sense. After all, who ever looks at the mess they've created and immediately mends their ways? Doubling down always looks so much more appealing.

Actors Theatre's annual Spring showcases are typically diverse in style and scope. Silverman's hilarious and devastating domestic drama is an opening proclamation of the power of a realistic story, well-written and well-staged. The 2015 Humana Festival is off to a stellar start.

"The Roommate"
By Jen Silverman
Directed by Mike Donahue
Part of the 39th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays
Through April 12
For performances dates, times and more information, go to www.actorstheatre.org



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