When you get call from the Normandy Society for International Orphans, do not give the woman on the phone your birth date and credit card number. She is not French. She is not raising funds to buy hats for motherless children in Nigeria.
She is a 50-something housewife named Sharon, sitting in her kitchen in Iowa City trying to scam you. And really, she doesn’t want your money. She wants to say "yes" to things instead of being told "no." She wants to take risks. To feel the rush of doing something wrong and getting away with it. She wants to be a literal partner-in-crime with her new friend Robyn, a black, vegan lesbian from the Bronx who fascinates and shocks her.
This odd couple is at the center of Jen Silverman’s play "The Roommate," continuing at Renaissance Theaterworks through Nov. 10. The script actually began as a challenge to write a drama with only two characters – complex, mature women. The result, directed by Renaissance Theaterworks’ Artistic Director Suzan Fete and featuring Marti Gobel and Isabel Quintero, is a funny and heartbreaking story about women learning to make bold choices as they reinvent themselves on their own terms.
When we first meet Sharon and Robyn, they are standing in the kitchen in Sharon’s house in the Midwest. Robyn has just driven half way across the country, to a place where she knows no one, to make a clean break with her past.
Sharon is Walmart and white bread, book clubs and leaving your door unlocked. Robyn is black leather boots and a motorcycle jacket, cigarettes she’s trying to kick and almond milk she bought at the co-op. Sharon is chatty. Robyn won’t give a straight answer. Sharon has been confined her whole life by a strict mother, a disinterested husband and a disengaged son. Now that they are all gone, she isn’t defined or hemmed in by them, but that has left her amorphous. Robyn has had so many names, so many schemes and so few limits that she is similarly lost when she looks for the structure of a law-abiding, conventional life.
It would be predictable if these two women from different ends of a life spectrum butted heads, argued and justified their own choices, learning a bit from each other by the end of the play. But the expected conflict never comes. Instead of colliding, they intersect in surprising ways that escalate quickly to the delightfully absurd. While they each struggle to navigate relationships with their children, they provide each other with support and affection that they both want so desperately, and can’t find elsewhere.
When Gobel’s Robyn enters, she has a world weary look, a swagger and evasive, staccato speech. But she relaxes into her new surroundings surprisingly quickly and seems genuinely relieved that no one is chasing her, here in the heartland. Likewise, Quintero’s initial eager-to-please, Midwestern nice evolves rapidly to joyous confidence, then ultimately giving way to vulnerability and pain that Sharon had not experienced in any of her other relationships.
But as Sharon is more comfortable with risk and transgressive behavior, Robyn becomes alarmed. The former hustler from the Bronx tells us she regrets giving her daughter a set of (mostly illegal) "life skills" that have now created a chasm between them. When she sees the same pattern emerging, Robyn realizes she may need to start over yet again. And as Quintero composes her first slam poem after perhaps her first real heartbreak, it’s clear to the audience that she will also start over, hopefully profiting from her experience.
"The Roommate" is a talky play on a single set, and some of the danger inherent in using and selling "medicinal herbs" has been dulled since the play debuted, due to recent changes in the law. But the relationship that the two fine actresses create is nonetheless very compelling. They certainly could have been served better with a more open set, providing more options for movement than simply sitting around a kitchen table. The flow of the 100-minute, intermission-free show also would have been helped with fewer frantic changes in set dressing during blackouts – including one that actually gave away the end of the play before the lights came up.
But if you were foolish enough to donate to the Normandy Society for International Orphans, you’ll be happy to know that you may get a call someday, checking up on you and thanking you for your gift.