‘The Roommate’ at Riverside emphasizes that age does not dictate identity

On April 28, Jen Silverman’s ‘The Roommate’ premiered at Riverside Theatre, exploring the theme of friendship, and arguing that it is never too late in life to change.


Darren Chen

Mary Mayo, playing Robyn, performs during a production of “The Roommate” presented by the Riverside Theatre in Iowa City on Thursday, April 28, 2023.

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter

If you think you’ve had bad experiences with roommates, imagine a former criminal from New York moving into your house. This is exactly what happens in the comedic and hard-hitting play “The Roommate.”

“The Roommate” premiered at Riverside Theatre on April 28. Written by the University of Iowa Playwright Workshop’s Jen Silverman, the play focused on two very different characters whose lives were forever changed when they became housemates. The production will play at Riverside until May 14.

Much of the production’s humor poked fun at Iowa and the Midwest through its Iowa City setting. The script often made direct references to downtown streets, businesses, and events.

The story began with Robyn, played by Mary Mayo, moving into a house owned by Sharon, played by Joy Vandervort-Cobb. From the moment we meet them, it is painfully clear that the pair are nearly opposites.

Robyn’s abundant life experience made her more open-minded and relaxed. Sharon’s lack of life experience had made her slightly uptight and socially conservative. She quickly found that Robyn filled a hole in her life that she hadn’t realized was empty.

Over the course of the play, Robyn revealed more about her past and the less-than-legal activities she participated in. At Sharon’s insistence, Robyn passed on her knowledge to her housemate.

Robyn and Sharon also shared the fact that they were mothers with relationships with their children that had been strained over time. Without her son or her ex-husband, Sharon was lonely until Robyn became an electrifying presence in her house.

These two characters explored several different types of relationships, including that of housemates, best friends, and perhaps even something more, all over the course of roughly a month.

Nina Morrison, the director of “The Roommate,”  pursued the project because she was intrigued by the idiosyncratic text and the representation of women in their 50s.

“[Jen Silverman] has a quote somewhere about having all this agency and power onstage as women in their 50s, and I was so into that, and was just like ‘When are we allowed to change?’” Morrison said. “When are we allowed to be different and just let go of something even if we’ve been that identity our whole lives?”

“The Roommate” tackles these questions by suggesting that evolution and change can occur at any time in one’s life, and no one is too old to be trapped in a life they are not satisfied in.

The production was carried out with lighting that communicated how much time had passed between scenes and brief interludes set to music that reflected the evolution of the characters. Each scene change was also completed by prop and set changes by assistant stage manager Reese Morgan under the direction of stage manager Maggie McClellan.

Mayo and Vandervort-Cobb had notable chemistry onstage. Audience members could easily sympathize with characters and invest in their respective searches for happiness, especially if that happiness was found in each other.

“The performances were brilliant,” said Esther Claudio, the 2022-23 Mellon Sawyer Seminar Postdoctoral Scholar at the UI. “You could see every little change happening, and you believe it.”

Audience members like Debra Weiler, who is a Riverside Theatre member — also called a Riverdog — also enjoyed the show. She said she was transported by the production and found the transformations of the characters surprising.

“The characters are really strong,” Weiler said. “[“The Roommate”] takes you outside your own world and into other people’s situations.”