Courtesy of Kitchen Theatre

February 3, 2019

‘The Roommate’ Is Sensational

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It’s a tired story trope with which we are all painfully familiar — two people from different sides of the tracks become unlikely friends despite the odds being stacked against them. In Jen Silverman’s The Roommate, two middle-aged women, one from the Bronx and the other from Illinois, embark on a drug-filled rebirth all while sharing a home in Iowa. The Roommate is hysterical and refreshing, a story filled with petty-crime, Blondie-blaring girl power and quick-witted dialogue. It takes a familiar character dynamic and transforms it into a new-age galavant.

The show debuted Thursday at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company on West State Street. The play’s cast is composed solely of two actors, Susannah Berryman and Maureen Keiller, who portray Sharon and Robyn, respectively. Sharon is a divorcee in her mid-50s, right on the brink of a mid-life crisis. Robyn, on the other hand, is a rough-around-the-edges type who trades her role as vegan-enigma for that of an emotional guidance counselor who grudgingly escorts Sharon through the world of crime and misdemeanors.

The performances by these two women were nothing short of superb. The dialogue was quick, intelligent and delivered so tactfully by Berryman and Keiller that at times I felt like a voyeur, staring into the lives of two very real people. Berryman incorporated a level of physical comedy into her performance, which proved absolutely delightful. The moments after she smoked a joint for the first time had the crowd in stitches; Berryman chasséd around the tiny stage, grasping the refrigerator with great passion and giggling at just the right moments. Keiller, in contrast, made the artistic choice of performing with restraint, letting the audience see the character’s true self only a handful of times throughout the performance. The motivation for this was made clear by the end of the play. Keiller sauntered around unrestrained while Robyn’s baggage from past lives followed her.

Given the play’s levity, the audience is made to think they will be smiling for the entirety of the play’s 100 minute run-time. This is untrue. The characters in this play are complex, a truth that is paramount to one’s viewing experience and understanding of the work as a whole. There will be no happily ever afters. The play reaches a poignant climax when Sharon, who has become infatuated with Robyn’s law-breaking past, goes so far as to admit her love for the latter in a romantic and stilted scene that results in the pair sharing a kiss. Whether or not this love for Robyn is real or simply a misguided response to Robyn’s role as Sharon’s liberator from the cult of domesticity is a decision that is left to the audience.

Sharon was a vanilla woman living in a plain part of America until she met Robyn, the combat-boot-wearing badass who told her that divorce does not have to end in the death of one’s social life and that age is merely a number. Robyn opened up a door that Sharon never even knew existed. The latter was enthralled by the adrenaline rush she got from doing things she knew was wrong, such as committing wire fraud against the annoying women in her “reading group” and starting a cute, little drug-ring targeting those same suburban bookworms.

The kiss is the agent of termination in Sharon and Robyn’s friendship. The next morning, Robyn disappears, a practice the audience construes to be common for this woman who can’t seem to settle on a single identity let alone a single home. Sharon descends into a depressive rage, destroying her kitchen and discovering the dime bags of cocaine Robyn had hidden in antique vases. The gitty housewife the audience had grown to love was bereft of a friend, her baptizer into the world of freedom and excitement. Berryman convincingly portrayed the internal conflict felt by Sharon, a deadly cocktail of intense love and impassioned abhorrence for the woman who saved her from herself.

The Roommate’s plot is fantastic. The acting was convincing and the production was seamless. Finally we have a story about two nontraditional women who have their own drama. We see the vast dimensions possessed by both of these characters who could not be more different. The play is a true triumph for women.

Madeline Rutowski is a junior in the School of Industrial  and Labor Relations. She can be reached mjr444@cornell.edu.