Review: ‘The Roommate’ at Everyman Theatre

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Deborah Hazlett and Beth Hylton are both very talented actors. Deborah Hazlett and Beth Hylton together onstage in Jen Silverman’s new two-woman show is something truly remarkable! It’s a rewarding phenomenon you’ll get to see when you attend Everyman Theatres (“Everyman”) second offering of their 2016/17 season, The Roommate.

Beth Hylton (Robyn) and Deb Haslett (Sharon). Photo by Stan Barouh.
Beth Hylton (Robyn) and Deb Haslett (Sharon). Photo by Stan Barouh.

The Roommate, which celebrated its World Premiere at the 2015 Humana Festival of New American Plays, had its sold-out East Coast Premiere at Everyman on Friday. The Roommate is a coming-of-age story about two women in their 50s. Sharon, an Iowan divorcée who, after a life of serving a husband who left and a now-adult son who lives a thousand miles away, is trying to figure out who she is. She was on that express bus that takes you from parents to college to marriage to motherhood and always has someone telling you what your role is and who you are supposed to be. Lonely, she advertises for a roommate – another woman in her 50s – largely so she’ll have someone to talk to in the mornings.

Perhaps Sharon should have been more specific in her ad, because she doesn’t exactly get the kind of roommate she was expecting. Robyn, a fiery New Yorker from The Bronx, has taken a far more circuitous path to her 50’s. She has a mysterious past and behaves in ways Sharon would never have imagined a “woman of a certain age” would act. Robyn wears torn jeans, smokes, and listens to music. And she’s a vegan, whatever that means. Ostensibly dissimilar in every way, the women do share the common goal of starting over. Through hilarious interactions over the course of the play, they come to know each other – and themselves – and learn that it’s never too late to redefine yourself and change your life.

Deborah Hazlett, splendid in the role of Sharon, is now in her 20th season as a Resident Company Member with Everyman. The Roommate marks her 40th production with the company. Hazlett, unlike her character, seems to be in a situation that suits her very well. Poor Sharon, however, is boxed-in. Hazlett adeptly uses her physicality and voice to underscore how confining Sharon’s life is. You can see it in the way she presses her knees and ankles together when she sits. It’s evident in her posture and how, in an understated Midwestern accent, Hazlett delivers her plainspoken, no-nonsense lines with such buttoned-up sincerity it is comical. Her performance, particularly her comedic timing, is pitch-perfect.

The always-fantastic Beth Hylton plays Robyn. Physically the opposite of Sharon, Hylton’s Robyn moves with lithe self-assurance and requires no permission to occupy space. She sits on the counter; she sprawls at the kitchen table, one booted leg propped up on the dining surface as she slides into a comfortable slouch in the chair. Her unaccented speech is perfect for someone who has traveled a lot and needed to fit right in. Hylton skillfully captures the nuances of a woman who is confident in her skills and talents but, at the same time, is ready to move on and explore different facets of herself. In an outstanding performance, Hylton brings Robyn to life.

The Artistic and Creative team that designed this production created a physical world for the actors that felt seamless and real. Scenic Designer Timothy R. Mackabee used the full width of the theater to create the house in which Sharon and Robyn reside. The level of detail was impressive. Working with Properties Master Jillian Mathews, Mackabee’s set felt as if someone had simply removed a wall of a real home so we could see inside. A purse hung from a hook inside the front door. There were scores of little magnets on refrigerator. Even the living room, a space seen only through an archway and never used by the characters, was completely and realistically adorned. The sun shone through a tall curtained window; a floor lamp, magazine rack, and end-table sat next to a comfy couch.

Lighting Designer Jesse Belsky made excellent use of all the windows in the house, indicating the passage of time through subtle (and not so subtle) sunsets and sunrises. The multiple light sources from inside the house felt natural and fit the scenes perfectly. Likewise, the house sounded completely natural.

Sound Designer Stowe Nelson paid attention not only to big ticket items like the rainstorm that started as staccato drops before becoming a proper shower, splashing water onto windows and doors. Subtle everyday sounds also added to the realism – the gurgle of the coffee pot, the quiet growl of the dishwasher.

Costume Designer Sarah Cubbage’s work completed the onstage world. Outfitting Sharon in fittingly Midwest momwear – smart pants with button-up tops and pastel sweaters – put Robyn’s boot-wearing urban style into even sharper relief. Black, ripped jeans with t-shirts and big overshirts accentuated Robyn’s comfort in her skin in juxtaposition to Sharon’s tidy, muted attire.

The Roommate is a response to the lack of representation playwright Jen Silverman has observed in American theater; one that she wants to help remedy. Silverman has stated, “As women, once you’re out of your 30s, in this particular society in America, you become slightly invisible… So I really wanted to write a play for badass women in their 50s.”

Beth Hylton (Robyn) and Deb Haslett (Sharon). Photo by Stan Barouh.
Beth Hylton (Robyn) and Deb Haslett (Sharon). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Everyman’s Founding Artistic Director Vincent Lancisi, a man with a demonstrated commitment to supporting works by and about women, saw the show last year at Humana Festival. In his program note, Lancisi applauds Silverman for writing “a play for actresses in this stage of life. [It’s] a play that has something to say and a unique vantage point – and it’s brilliantly funny to boot.” He continues, “I knew it was something that we just had to produce.” 

The Roommate, now at Everyman Theatre, is a bold new play by one of the most dynamic emerging playwrights on the scene today. Under the direction of Everyman’s Artistic Associate, Johanna Gruenhut, Resident Company Members Deborah Hazlett and Beth Hylton deliver exceptional performances that hit every comedic high note while conveying important thoughts about reinvention, resilience, and the elasticity of identity. The Roommate is a production not to be missed.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

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The Roommate plays through November 27, 2016 at Everyman Theatre – 315 West Fayette Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 752-2208, or purchase them online.

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