Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"The Roommate"

The Roommate
Jen Silverman

Julia Brothers & Susi Damilano
Who does not remember those terribly awkward, first few minutes (hours? days? years?) trying to size up a new roomie?  Sharon is trying her best to welcome Robyn into her big, old home on the outskirts of Iowa City, so much so her smile has uncomfortably and completely commandeered her entire face.  She is trying to convince the new arrival that Iowa’s tornadoes are “no scarier than the Bronx,” where she can hardly believe Robyn actually chose to live prior to driving all her boxed belongings here to the Midwest.  Robyn looks suspiciously in mild but clear disbelief as Sharon rattles off a slew of run-on sentences, punctuated by questions that Robyn seems never to answer ( such as “What do you do?”  “What do you write about?”  “What do you grow?”).  

Two middle-aged women, apparently as different as night and day, are now under the same roof learning about one’s almond milk and about the other’s weekly reading group in Jen Silverman’s immediately funny (with some dark twists and turns) and ultimately touching The Roommate.  As staged by San Francisco Playhouse under the pitch-perfect direction of Becca Wolfe and with two leading actors for whom their parts were seemingly written (Susi Damilano and Julia Brothers), The Roommate has been touted by The Los Angeles Times as The Odd Couple “taking a sly shift” to Breaking Bad.  There is some Thelma and Louise mingled in, too; only these two strangers-turned-cohorts go off on some daredevil capers together without ever leaving the kitchen table.

Susi Damilano & Julia Brothers
Sharon, recently “retired from my marriage,” is proud she is actually from Illinois and not Iowa.  “I look Iowan but I’m not; that’s my secret weapon,” she boasts to the woman in short-cropped hair, boots, and no-bra tank-tops who lands on her doorstep in response to an online ad.  In her pony-tail and skirt, Sharon is all too eager to make her new roomie feel welcome but is more than alarmed when she catches the proclaimed vegan smoking. (“I thought I had ruled out junkies.”) 

It takes a constant dose of probing that first week; but slowly the unanswered questions she has about this ex-potter, ex-poet get some responses.  The answers suddenly liberate staid, nervous Sharon into an exhilarating -- but maybe now-dangerous -- world of self-discovery and self-confidence as well as some feelings she thought no longer existed within her.

Susi Damilano is a wonder to watch as in the course of the play’s one hour, fifty minutes she completely overhauls Sharon – an initially sugar-sweet, somewhat silly, and in many ways sad loner stuck in this big house with no husband and a grown son in New York who will not answer her many voice mails.  Her Sharon, who starts out more 1950s than not, transforms into a dynamo ready and reckless to break all the boundaries and mores drilled into her by others in order finally to experience a life she gets to define herself. 

Ms. Damilano’s entire being – from the way she carries herself to her voice to her entire countenance and demeanor – re-awakens Sharon on so many dimensions, bringing much laughter, causing some mild shock, and eventually tugging at heartstrings among the enraptured audience.  Whether leaning on the porch column in awed wonder at the stars while totally high on her first pot, dancing wildly to music that she is hearing as if for the first time in her life, or holding a gun with empowered gleam and thrill shooting from her eyes, her Sharon is someone we dare not blink in order not to miss a second of her on-stage presence.

Robyn is much more the mystery of this twosome. She observes the initial bubbliness of her new landlady with much silence, a slightly raised eyebrow, and a proneness to keep her distance – physically and emotionally.  Information is hard to come by from her; but when she speaks after hesitation, it is with emphatic emphasis and hands that mark phrases with widely extended fingers frozen into place.  Her river runs deep, and we learn that its course has traversed fields wild and wooly – especially by Sharon’s standards.  After all, as Robyn accounts, “I was born as a malleable, changeable template.”

Julia Brothers knows when to downplay her portrayal of the new, peculiar arrival into Sharon’s ho-hum world and exactly when and how to ratchet Robyn up to reveal a personality capable of a cornucopia of identities and pasts that capture our and Sharon’s attention.  She employs a plethora of toned-down nuances and subtleties that contrast wonderfully with Sharon’s abundance of appropriately over-done expressions of enthusiasm, drama, and emotions.  Robyn leads the way in creating a special, blended bond between the two, contrasting roomies; and yet Ms. Brothers never fully betrays the hidden parts of Robyn even as she increasingly offers here and there intriguing glimpses into who Robin really is.

Taking Jen Silverman’s efficiently brilliant script, Becca Wolff has sculpted it into an ebb and flow that keeps pushing further into new territories of discovery and surprise of facts, actions, and personalities without ever flooding us with too much, too soon.  Everything she has created with the team around her enhances in often astounding ways the journey she and the playwright take us on. 

Julia Brothers & Susi Damilano
Nina Ball’s set immediately convinces us of the house’s large size, its Midwest character, and the years of attention taken to make it homey.  Jacqueline Scott’s properties fill in all the specifics that call for more time to explore than we have but that also lead to much humor and surprise.  
The set’s big windows and beautifully sculpted second story open up into some of the most stunning daytime and nighttime skies that Iowa or this audience has probably ever seen, thanks to the projections of Theodore J.H. Hulsker.  His choice of colors sometimes flooding scene changes as well as the music he chooses as sound designer echo the mood and/or surprise of the receding scene while helping us anticipate what is coming next.  Rounding out the creative talents are Robert Hand as lighting designer and Melissa Trn, whose costumes offer character insights and sometimes their own moments of chuckle.

The Roommate challenges its audience to questions assumptions about what is proper and right (especially for a woman of middle age) as defined by society; tradition; and just plain, old, good sense.  Jen Silverman’s play does so while tickling our innards and touching our hearts.  The Creative Team of San Francisco Playhouse, Director Becca Wolff, and two perfectly cast actors ensure that The Roommate is going to continue to bring smiles and fond memories of its individual scenes for a long time to come.

Rating: 5 E

The Roommate continues through July 1, 2017 at 2016 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli

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