A pair of 50-something women negotiate a strange cohabitation in OCT’s comedy The Roommate

For nearly 20 years now, I’ve held a regular gig reviewing local theater productions, first in Seattle and then here in Eugene. What began as a lark — when I started, I didn’t know what it meant to “hit your mark” — has resulted in an abiding passion for everything that happens on the lighted stage.

Theater has become my church, a communal space of mythical reckonings that, on any given night, holds the power to transform, if not the world, at least the individual soul. 

Movies are great, but they are a deceptively inert art form compared to theater. On screen, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor will always be George and Martha, but on stages across the world, an infinite variety of George and Marthas become possible. Theater, with its real human beings performing in real time, can fail miserably, which also means that, at every moment, it can succeed gloriously, creating a spontaneous vision of transcendence that may never happen again.

You gotta be in the seats to catch that singular moment — it’s the risk that beckons the reward — and, as I bid adieu to this regular gig of reviewing for the Eugene Weekly, I can think of no better valediction than to tip my hat to Oregon Contemporary Theatre’s new staging of Jen Silverman’s The Roommate.

Expertly directed by Craig Willis, and starring Mary Buss and Lisa Roth, this production captures everything I’ve come to love about theater: its expansive intimacy, its ability to seduce and surprise, and especially the magical way it transmits the raw, unfiltered feel of lives lived, a kind of situational authenticity that crackles and snaps with a generosity of spirit flowing directly from the stage to the audience.

The Roommate tells the story of Sharon (Buss), a divorced woman living a life of middle-class isolation in Iowa City. With her son in college in New York and a serious case of empty nest syndrome kicking in, Sharon decides to take on a roommate, Robyn (Roth), a weed-smoking vegan lesbian relocating (for mysterious reasons, it turns out) from the Bronx.

What we have here, on the surface at least, is The Odd Couple set for a pair of 50-year-old women, each undergoing her own specific identity crisis. Sharon, the proverbial middle-class Midwest woman, seems to be the uptight square, though beneath her nervous, apologetic exterior there surges a powerful hunger for adventure, something new and exciting; Robyn, the cosmopolitan hipster with an alienated daughter and a box full of plaster voodoo dolls, is actually outrunning a criminal past and looking to go straight — or so she hopes.

Silverman digs deep beneath the stereotypical conflicts and revelations that might result from these two very different women colliding. The humor she locates is unexpectedly sensitive but also outright hilarious: misunderstandings over sexuality, class and cultural differences are woven into a narrative of discovery, as Sharon and Robyn negotiate the strange, fragile relationship forming between them. Funny is rarely this touching, and it’s a credit to Willis as a director that he handles the flow of the drama with such a sure, sophisticated touch.

It’s also a credit to the actors, who are fabulous. Roth brings to Robyn an enticing balance of East Coast cool and furtive underworld darkness, creating a tension that draws the audience — and Sharon — into her struggle to remake herself. Buss is a joy to behold; she gives Sharon an uncommon depth, evoking this woman with every inch of her being and fully conveying the complicated desires that drive her to bust out of her cocoon.

Nothing more earth-shattering than the transformation of these two women takes place — call it a coming of middle-age story, told with tenderness, honesty and humor. The criminal intrigues, the drugs, the romance: All are put in service of this story of the friendship that develops between the unlikeliest people, both of them lost and searching for a new foothold in life, however tenuous. It’s a beautiful story, bittersweet and uplifting at once.

That watching two women interacting for a couple hours on a single set — a neat, clean kitchen in Iowa City — can prove so enthralling is a testament to what local theater companies like OCT can do, and why we they should continue to be supported and frequented as the cultural treasures they are.

The Roommate plays at Oregon Contemporary Theatre through March 15; tickets and times at or 465-1506.

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