As the 2016 election reminded us, outside of our liberal Chicago bubble are small towns, differing ideas, and a plethora of mason jars filled with various canned goods. Such is the setting of Steppenwolf’s latest, The Roommate, as a progressive New Yorker moves in with an Iowan divorcee shocked by the introduction of her vegan, pot-smoking, queer roommate. An amusing series of antics ensue as this odd couple learns to live together, and while Jen Silverman’s play relies on a few too many stereotypes in its latter half to make the conclusion resonate emotionally, the dynamic acting duo of Ora Jones and Sandra Marquez succeed in making the play enjoyable if not entirely memorable.
Being a Midwesterner at heart--albeit not, as she assures us, a native Iowan--Marquez’s Sharon is good-natured and unfailingly polite to her new tenant as the play begins. Underneath the chipper demeanor that seems to pervade throughout middle America, though, Jones’ Robyn senses something deeper in her new roommate: a desire for excitement, for change, for awakening. The pair starts with a joint but quickly moves on from there when Robyn’s past opens up new doors of illicit activity for the duo. It’s here that the plot falters a bit, as the relationship between the two diminishes in authenticity through this series of events; it’s too quick a change, too stereotypical of an outcome.
That being said, Jones and Marquez are a remarkable team. Marquez is the Midwestern mom--complete with insults thinly veiled beneath “polite” comments and an insistence on playing the immaculate hostess. Her transition from easy-going to extreme is believable in large part due to Marquez’s deft hand, which somehow plays up the comedic moments without coming across as disingenuous. Though Robyn’s character arc isn’t quite as well developed, Jones also succeeds in bringing a dose of reality to this somewhat whimsical story; her relationship with Sharon could easily have come across as a forced storyline, but Jones makes Robyn an empathetic and emotional character whose growing affection for Sharon is clear.
Tony-winner Phylicia Rashad seems a great fit for the material and the technical elements of the production, in typical Steppenwolf nature, are excellent. John Iacovelli's scenic design is realistic and warm, though the cavernous stage makes the sprawling kitchen area seem large even by suburban Iowa standards. Xavier Pierce's lighting cues are subtle but inform the play from start to finish and greatly help to create the world of the set.
Overall, Silverman’s 90 minute dive into the lives of two very different women may not make any waves, but it’s still worth a view. Jones and Marquez are two of Chicago’s strongest talents, and their antics together make for an enjoyable and lighthearted trip to the theatre.
Review by Emily Schmidt
The Roommate continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through August 5. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.