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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Roommate
Prime Productions
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Hair Ball and Charlie Brown Black

Greta Oglesby and Allison Edwards
Photo by Dan Norman
Sharon (Greta Oglesby) is the central character in Jen Silverman's play The Roommate, receiving a generously mounted staging by Prime Productions in Mixed Blood Theater's Alan Page Auditorium. Sharon has lived a repressed live, never doing anything that would raise anyone else's eyebrow. She is recently divorced–opining that her husband left the marriage long before she did, but neglected to tell her–and has a son who lives in New York City (gentrified Park Slope, to be precise), far from the Iowa City home where Sharon raised him. Though Iowa City is a college town with lots of opportunities to branch out–full disclosure, I lived there a total of 8.5 years and know it well–Sharon has kept to herself. Her one outlet is a book club. And she is critical of Tanya, the club member who insists on calling it a "reading group," blaming it on Tanya's exotic origins–she's from Idaho.

With empty space in her house, and, presumably, a need for extra cash, though her financial state doesn't seem to be an issue, Sharon advertises for a roommate. At fifty seven years of age, this will be a big change for her, but ahead she goes, out on that particular limb. Who shows up but Robyn (Allison Edwards) who appears close to Sharon in age, but otherwise nothing like her. Robyn has moved to Iowa from New York City - the Bronx, to be precise. Robyn confirms Sharon's sense that the Bronx is a far cry from Park Slope, though Sharon's visions of the dangers of life in the Bronx exceed Robyn's somewhat nonchalant description.

Robyn barges in with the bluster one associates, rightly or not, with New Yorkers, exacerbating Sharon's nervousness about making, what feels to her, a big step outside her comfort zone. It doesn't help that Robyn avoids any disclosures about herself–her profession, her reason for moving to Iowa, what plans she has–and what she does disclose is quite unlike the company Sharon is accustomed to: Robyn is a vegan, a Lesbian, and a pot smoker. What has Sharon gotten herself into?

It turns out that Sharon, wittingly or not, seems to have known exactly what she was getting herself into. Not the specifics, for she could not have guessed the particulars of Robyn's colorful past, but she is opening herself up to this incursion upon her life, ready to rip apart her prim trappings and see what she has missed all these years. Which is what leads me to claim that Sharon is the central character, as she is the one who truly changes. This, in spite of the fact that Robyn is on stage almost as much as Sharon, and that as the play opens it appears that Robyn is primed for a change–hence, the move from the Bronx to Iowa. Still, as the play, running 105 minutes without intermission, unspools, tables begin to turn. Playwright Silverman gives us a clue as well in titling the play The Roommate and not Roommates, plural. The implication is that one character is the play's touchstone, while the other, the titular roommate, is the force that acts upon the center to bring about change.

Silverman writes witty dialogue with an authentic feel to it, and the two actors on stage deliver it like the gold medal pros they are. Greta Oglesby is known locally for a celebrated star turn in Caroline, or Change at the Guthrie, as a feet-firmly-on-the-ground Lena Younger in Park Square's A Raisin in the Sun and in repeat appearances expounding joyful spirituality in Penumbra's Black Nativity, along with numerous other acclaimed performances–but not necessarily for comedy. She quickly proves to us that she can handle comedy just fine, thank you, especially so when nuance is called for, as in her nonverbal objections to Robyn breaking out a cigarette (in spite of the fact that she had advertised her home as a non-smoking premises), or cavalierly putting her feet up on Sharon's dining room table. The darker the story becomes–and it does take a turn at about the halfway point, from "situation" to "dark" comedy–the more Oglesby digs into the vein of humor within the play. Allison Edwards holds up her end as Robyn, creating a character who has adopted a droll delivery for every facet of her life in order to keep truth at bay. With less of a transformation, Robyn becomes the less interesting of the duo, but Edwards nevertheless firmly holds our attention throughout.

There is so much going in this play, and this production–which includes a terrific unit set from BrownKnows Design, showcasing Sharon's chosen, safe, early-American decor, atmospheric lighting designed by Grant E. Merges that draws our attention to the essential spot on stage, and Kathy Kohl's perfectly apt costumes–that it is a shame to report the one large fly in ointment: that the whole enterprise feels false. With no fault whatsoever in the two actors, nor in director Greta Grosch's steady hand, nor the playwright's well-honed dialogue, the issue comes down to a core question: can we believe what happens in the play?

Yes, Sharon has lived a repressed life, but surely has had and turned down previous opportunities to change that. She lives in a progressive college town, after all, and, as she states several times, is originally from Illinois, which means that she, at some point, had the perspective of an outsider picking and choosing how to live life in this new place. She seems to have no friends; her description of her book club hardly makes them qualify as friends, which strikes me as her having shied away from people rather than a dearth of people.

Then this stranger appears to whom Sharon makes herself completely vulnerable, even when said stranger brings elements of high risk into her life. While Sharon clearly has a long-suppressed desire to change, we learn nothing about her that makes this drastic turn-around feel believable. I do not fault the actors or the director, but the basic premise. Did she really accept a roommate into her home from a thousand miles away without knowing anything about her? That in itself seems like a step that Sharon would not have taken on her own–and on her own describes her completely before Robyn's arrival. Where did she advertise her room-for-rent where it was seen by someone in the Bronx, and not someone closer at hand whom Sharon could meet in advance of agreeing to the arrangement?

Unless–and I fear this is my own fabrication and not the playwright's intent, but hear me out–Robyn never existed, but is an invention of Sharon's mind, a convulsion against the life she has lived thus far that allows Sharon to completely reinvent herself. Based on the course of the play's narrative, this does not seem beyond the realm of possibility. Further, though I have not seen any other plays by Silverman nor read her prose, I have read her statement in an interview that The Roommate comes closer to evoking realism than any of her other works. Perhaps it is not as tethered in realism as first meets the eye.

And so ... perhaps the premise works after all, depending on how freely you want to interpret what you see on stage. In any case, for two sharply realized performances that capture the play's acerbic humor, and a well-tuned, handsomely staged production, Prime Productions' The Roommate makes for a worthwhile night of theater, one that is bound to give you much to talk all the way home.

The Roommate, presented by Prime Productions, runs through June 19, 2022, at Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. Name your price ticketing for all performances. For information and tickets go to or call 612-338-6131.

Playwright: Jen Silverman: Director: Greta Grosch; Director of Production: Michael Shann; Set Design: BrownKnows Design; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design: Grant E. Merges; Sound Design: Anita Kellin; Props Design: Marc Berg; Stage Manager: Kathryn Sam Houkom; Assistant Stage Manager: Grace Keller-Long ; Producer: Shelli Place.

Cast: Alison Edwards (Robyn), Greta Oglesby (Sharon), Robbie Mancina (voice of French instructor), Chase Oglesby (voice of Sharon's son).