Most plays worth their weight in grease have the Big Reveal, the unveiling of the secret beneath the apparently still waters that belies the deep, dark undercurrents beneath. Jen Silverman’s 2015 dark comedy The Roommate is no different, except it’s way different. What begins as a simple Big City Mouse meets Country Mouse tale of two fiftysomething women stuck in dismal presents, one that in lesser hands could have been just another pedestrian throw-away of “life begins at 50” and “it’s never too late to get your groove back,” turns into a gripping story that anyone’s inner Heisenberg could enjoy.
The set-up seems way too easy, if not trite. Sharon (the always-impeccable and multifaceted Linda Gehringer) is a 54-year-old empty-nester living in a small town in Iowa. Her marriage has long since ended, her son is a fashion designer in New York, and what semblance of a life she seems to have revolves around her kitchen (precisely detailed by scenic designer John Iacovelli) and her book club. She’s achingly lonely; why her house isn’t filled with cats is anyone’s guess.
Enter Robyn (the equally capable Tessa Auberjonois), a refugee from the Bronx who has answered Sharon’s advertisement for a roommate. We don’t know much about her, other than she’s a vegan who smokes and has obviously pulled a geographic to get away from something. Of course, secrets are exposed, and we realize Robyn has a far more interesting backstory and that she’s come to Iowa in hopes of hitting the life-reset button. But what she, Sharon, or most of the audience probably can’t foresee is the switch her arrival flips for Sharon. Let’s just say that the drab and homespun Midwestern Ma Kettle may or may not have more than a streak of Ma Barker in her.
Silverman is the latest in a steady procession of female playwrights who have graced South Coast Repertory’s boards since Marc Masterson’s ascension as artistic director in 2011. (Co-founding artistic director Martin Benson directs this show, and it’s always great to see him back in the trenches.) Women playwrights hadn’t been strangers at SCR before Masterson’s tenure, but compared to white men, they were rare. For instance, in the 1990s, fewer than 10 of the company’s 125 mainstage productions were written by women; it got better as the aughts wound down, but it has accelerated under Masterson’s tenure, with 17 of SCR’s last 39 shows, including this season’s, penned by female writers.
Whether that’s indicative of more women writing better plays, or part of American theater’s pronounced shift to opening its doors to more diverse voices, there is no disputing that the playwrights, as well as the plays we’re seeing at SCR, have come a long way. But does it really matter? All that matters is whether they are good plays, right? Well, sure, but at the risk of offending all those sensitive men in touch with their inner anima, it’s highly doubtful, if not categorically impossible, that a man would have written The Roommate.
It isn’t because this is a play that features only two characters, both women, nor does it have to do with their ages (take a gander at the big or small screen, and you don’t see many women hovering around the age of 50 unless they’re lawyers or ball-busting corporate types). No, it’s because this is a play that is thoroughly about women; the men in their lives are either gone or distant, and instead of being ensnared in reaction to that situation, these women are attempting to re-imagine their lives on their own terms. The beauty of Silverman’s play is that while it features two women, it’s really about anyone who finds themselves mired in whatever rut they have either chosen or feel they have stumbled into.
That makes it, like any decent play, universal, but there’s no touchy-feely going on. These women’s lives do change, and at least one of them absolutely upends her existence and is poised to catapult into territory that’s not only unknown, but also downright felonious. And Silverman makes no apologies. There is some really bad shit going on here, or at least the play forces the viewer to contemplate that possibility, but Silverman somehow manages to not only make the harrowing twist palpable, but to also elicit the viewer to pull for the character who, by any rational rubric, shouldn’t be pulled for. Maybe it’s because we love rooting for good people gone bad, as long as that turn signifies some kind of re-awakening. Or maybe, we just like being bad—or watching others relish their badness. As another Bad Girl of the stage and screen once said, “When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.”
The Roommate at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through Jan. 22. $22-$79.