‘The Roommate’ – dark humor, brilliantly played

Robyn (Julia Brothers) offers to clean up a mess for Sharon (Susi Damilano) -Photo Jessica Palopoli

What happens when a rather naïve and unworldly woman in Iowa City – whose major excitement in life is her book club – opens her home to a stranger from the Bronx – a very savvy and streetwise woman who is most decidedly experienced in the ways of the world? Sharon, a lonely soul, whose husband “retired” from their marriage, and who has a son in New York, from whom she rarely hears, is about to find out when Robyn arrives on her doorstep. This is the background to The Roommate, Jen Silverman’s discerning study of an unlikely relationship between two middle-aged women who couldn’t be more different from each other.  It’s the latest production by San Francisco Playhouse directors Bill English and Susi Damilano.

Sharon is appalled to see Robyn smoking – Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Sharon and Robyn work through a dispute – Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Sharon is absolutely flabbergasted as details of Robyn’s background start to emerge. The Bronx?! The horror on Sharon’s face conveys the thoughts flashing through her mind – visions of thieves and undesirables, thugs and criminals – and she puts her foot firmly in her mouth when she discovers that Robyn is homosexual, and tries to bluster her way out of her tactless response. Robyn, of course, is vegan, she smokes – shock, horror – and when the “drugs” appear – “medicinal herbs” is Robyn’s description of the newly arrived plant on the window-sill – Sharon is almost beside herself.

Gradually, though, Sharon starts to overcome her initial shock, and as time passes, the two women get to know each other better, and a friendship of sorts develops. Sharon is talkative and over-effusive. Robyn initially responds to her with an air of almost resigned tolerance, but comes to regard her with a degree of what borders on tenderness.

Sharon tries on some of the things she finds in one of Robyn’s boxes – Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Sharon is also inquisitive, and intrigued by Robyn’s stack of cardboard boxes on the porch. One of them, she discovers, contains Robyn’s collection of what she calls her “Voodoo dolls” – and it’s not long before aspects of Robyn’s murky past start emerging, even though these are initially lost on Sharon. Nevertheless, in her admiration for Robyn, Sharon slowly succumbs to the influence which her roommate so obviously wields over her.

Robyn and Sharon start to get to know each other – Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Susi Damilano (Sharon) and Julia Brothers (Robyn) are, quite simply, brilliant under Becca Wolff’s highly efficient direction of this dark, yet engaging, comedy. Totally immersed in their respective characters, they hold the audience in a state of almost hesitant anticipation as the plot unfolds, against Nina Ball’s impressive set.

The Roommate runs at the San Francisco Playhouse until July 1. For tickets and further information, visit the Playhouse website

Robyn makes a surprising revelation to Sharon – Photo: Jessica Palopoli


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