Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

The Roommate
Williamstown Theatre Festival
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Zander's review of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)


S. Epatha Merkerson and Jane Kaczmarek
Photo by Daniel Rader
The Roommate, a delectably precise new play on the main stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival through July 16th, has already been produced a number of times at various theaters since it premiered at Louisville's Humana Festival in March 2015. This contemporary two-hander enthralls here because Jane Kaczmarek as Robyn and S. Epatha Merkerson as Sharon are exemplary. The award-winning actors capture their characters and complement each other in a fashion any student of the craft of acting would admire and, perhaps, envy. Further, Jen Silverman, a gifted young playwright, provides substantive dialogue and much comedy, too. This show is an exciting early summer find.

Sharon (Merkerson) has a fine house in Iowa and we immediately note that its kitchen is most inviting: the cabinets are beckoning and the place is filled with stools, a table and chair, mixer, and so forth. Since her husband took leave of the marriage, Sharon wishes to bring in some cash. Thus, the appearance of Robyn (Kaczmarek), a tough-looking woman from the Bronx who happens to be a lesbian. She also writes poetry, like slam-poetry, and is also not above, for example, growing marijuana—whatever works. Kaczmarek's hair has been dyed yellow and flies about while Merkerson's short brown hair is neatly arranged. Costumer Anita Yavich outfits Sharon is various colorfully inviting clothing. Robyn, on the other hand, wears old, dreary T-shirts and black or blue jeans; she never seems fully put together.

The homeowner wants to unveil some of the mystery about the newcomer, who is, for a good while, tight-lipped and unsmiling. Robyn is a parent as is Sharon, but Robyn is not on terrific terms with her daughter. Sharon calls her own son, whom she loves, multiple times. Sharon tells Robyn about her book or reading group and Robyn, the vegan and onetime potter, lets it be known, eventually, that she's been in on some marginally shady "business" activities. The Bronx, it is assumed, is a dangerous place, but Iowa City catches more than its share of ominous tornadoes.

The interface between the actresses is uncommonly affecting and delivered with detail, nuance, and give and take. Jen Silverman has a great feel for the terrain she covers. Sharon, who is seemingly naive, tells Robyn that she once kissed a girl. Robyn wants out of her previous life and she is a defensive, unyielding woman for significant stretches of this play. Sharon relaxes incrementally, and relishes moments when she is able to dance with Robyn.

Each of the performers boasts an impressive resume from television as well as live stage. Merkerson was featured as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on "Law & Order" and appeared on Broadway when Come Back, Little Sheba was in a 2008 revival. Kaczmarek, familiar to many as Lois on television's "Malcolm in the Middle," had a memorable role last year in Williamstown; cast opposite Alfred Molina in And No More Shall We Part, Kaczmarek left an indelibly emotional imprint.

On one level, Silverman's work is about human growth and potential on individual and collective levels. It is also an insightful character study, written by someone who has obviously thought about human nature and has the talent to supply characters with finely honed language. It is a reality play until it is not. At first, the two women, seemingly disparate personality types, attempt to strike up a conversation. The playwright writes natural dialogue—well done. Finally, however, this 85-minute piece shifts its orbit. The art form of drama heightens and the author adroitly navigates.

Mike Donahue, who directed the initial production at Actors Theater of Louisville, is the knowing man at the helm in Williamstown. He and designer Dane Laffrey were wise to choose a rectangular space for the kitchen. Much of the talk occurs center or actor left, but there is a shift, late, to the other side of the performance area.

Silverman evidently spent much time in the rehearsal room with actors and directors in Williamstown as the presentation evolved. Thus, it is not surprising that it all feels collaborative in the most positive sense. The Roommate bids further contemplation for theatergoers. As these types of individuals move along with their respective journeys, in the course of, perhaps, a week, they modify, adjust and reconsider. It's all accomplished with a neat combination of grace and skill.

The Roommate continues at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts, through July 16th, 2017. For tickets, call 413-458-3253 or visit wtfestival.org.


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