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Worlds collide, mesh in ‘Roommate’ at Riverside Theatre
Iowa major player in drama’s light and dark sides onstage in Iowa City
IOWA CITY — Iowa is a major player in “The Roommate,” written by Jen Silverman, who has lived around the world, but came to the Iowa Playwrights Workshop in Iowa City, completing an MFA in 2011.
The play, onstage at Riverside Theatre through May 14, paints a bucolic view of Iowa as being “full of corn and space,” where people living in Iowa City stash items on their porches and don’t lock their doors.
This drama full of laughs, too, has been described as “The Odd Couple” meets “Breaking Bad.”
If you go
What: “The Roommate,” by Iowa Playwrights Workshop alum Jen Silverman
Where: Riverside Theatre, 119 E. College St., Iowa City
When: To May 14; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $15 to $35, riversidetheatre.org/roommate
Technically, viewers just see two 50-something women onstage: Sharon (Joy Vandervort-Cobb of Charleston, S.C.) and Robyn (Mary Mayo of Iowa City, a UI theater professor). But “Iowa” and “Iowa City” are invoked numerous times, especially in Act I, and often for comic effect.
The setting imbues Sharon with a naivete that finds her seeking a middle-aged female roommate to help fill the void in her “big, old house.” She doesn’t really need the money, but she’s recently divorced, and her son has moved to New York City, leaving her with an echoing empty nest.
And Iowa gives Robyn a safe place to hide from the sins of her past and from her daughter.
Both women go on epic journeys of self-discovery, which for Sharon includes smoking weed for the first time, followed by a downward spiral into the world Robyn wants to leave behind.
Those journeys created plenty of buzz following Sunday’s performance. Many stayed for a talkback with the two actors, and with director Nina Morrison of Iowa City and moderator Miriam Gilbert of Iowa City, a retired UI English professor whose research interests include Shakespeare, drama, and performance criticism.
Here are excerpts from that discussion, without giving away all the plot points.
Gilbert: When I first read the play, I was struck by how wonderful to find a play that specifically wants women in their 50s. But my real question is, what's in it for each one of these women? What drives your character?
Vandervort-Cobb: One of the major driving forces for Sharon is loneliness. Everything that she wants to attach to is very distant from her. Her husband's gone. Her son is gone. She doesn't have real friendships. …
She’s lonely, and then this dynamic force enters the house, and she changes. She becomes so much more. She's so childlike with what she doesn't know, what she doesn't understand, and what she wants. And what she wants is what I think we all want: love.
Gilbert: Is that what's behind her having advertised for a roommate? She’s taking a big chance there.
Vandervort-Cobb: But she doesn't know she's taking a big chance, because it's a woman. She's not afraid of women.
Gilbert: And for Robyn?
Mayo: I think Robin wants peace and quiet and a place to hide.
Gilbert: And Iowa has that.
Mayo: Yeah, no one's gonna bother me (Robyn) in Iowa. And I want to change my life. I want to not be in a life of crime anymore. And it feels like Iowa is an easy place to make that happen. Where are the temptations? There's nothing here. …
I don't think I came to the Midwest with the intention of targeting folks in the Midwest and starting my illustrious career again. I think I really wanted to come somewhere where I can prove to my daughter that I can live a normal life. And I move in with someone who's living a normal life. And so I hope to learn to live a normal life here.
Audience member to Mayo: The play changes so much at the end. But it seems like it's a play about addiction. You're trying to get rid of addiction when you come here. You're addicted to your lifestyle, like you're addicted to your cigarettes. … As it was going through, it seemed like this really smart sitcom, and then all of a sudden, it got so dark. All of a sudden, it's like a lot of addictions are going on here.
Gilbert: If I could just pick up on that notion that it starts as a sitcom. I admired the playwriting strategy very much here, in terms of all the laughs that we get in the opening scenes — and the way in which those are happening so that we are, in a sense, letting our guard down, relaxing. Even though we sense the tension, we as the audience can relax because we're being invited to laugh.
And then things start happening which are getting out of control, that we can’t control. And your point is, maybe they can't control (it) either. Is that a fair way to think about it in terms of addiction?
Vandervort-Cobb: It's interesting, because I think (Sharon is) addicted in many ways to a life that she no longer has. Right? Then this life changes. One person comes in and you feel different, you feel more like who you are, the truth of who you are. And her addiction, I think, is to feel it. She has a hunger to feel and to be able to express it, but to also feel — and she does. She thrives … in doing something that people have always told her she couldn't do.
The Gazette: What was the aha moment for all three of you, where you thought, I want to be involved in this show, either as actor or director?
Director Morrison: Really right after I read it, and I thought this play is just so filled with surprise, and unexpected. I love that shift that happens after intermission, where we're really dark. … I thought that was brilliant playwriting.
So that was my aha moment … and being so excited about women of this age being on stage. It can feel like a truly invisible zone. I was just so excited about women having all the power on the stage and that these are the stories we’re seeing.
Vandervort-Cobb: I’m a gig worker, and it was an opportunity to come spend some time with Adam (Knight, Riverside’s producing artistic director). I’ve known him for a long time, and it was really an opportunity to work. So then I read the script and thought, “I can do that.” I love that Jen centered a play around women our age.
Mayo: I'm just so basic. I have been wanting to work at Riverside ever since I moved here, which is five years ago, and then the pandemic happened. … And when Adam said, “Do you want?” I said, “Yeah!”
The Gazette: What are the similarities and differences you each see with your characters? Because I think as an actor, you have to find a common ground with your character.
Mayo: I can be a “leaver.” This is what Sharon/Joy called me the other day. This one moment, I can’t figure out what I’m doing here. What’s going on? She said, “You're leaving, you’re just a leaver.” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s it. I think I'm a leaver.” (In real life) if something just doesn’t feel good, I’m gonna leave and recreate myself. That’s why I moved to Iowa — to recreate myself. …
My main connection is the reconnection, like the-recreating-myself thing, but I think I can also be a leaver. I don't think to the same extent that (Robyn) is. But yeah.
Gilbert: So on the one hand, coming to Iowa is a safe place, but within a safe place, one can also become someone else.
Vandervort-Cobb: I'm not as naive as (Sharon) is, right? But I do love really big. Like, she loves this woman and she loves her son, and I'm sure she loved her husband. So those things I see where we can parallel. There aren't very many things that she has, but there's something really lovely about someone who's so willing to love. And she loves to tell stories.
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