Durham Fruit & Produce Company, Durham
The Women’s Theatre Festival has taken the theme of “Women Are Wicked” for its first year-round season, which begins next week in Durham. But Bulldog Ensemble Theater has stolen a smidgen of that thunder in its season opener, Jen Silverman’s chimerical 2017 domestic dramedy, The Roommate.
The first hint of wickedness creeps in as the enigmatic title character, Robyn, deftly evades the usual getting-to-know-you questions—line of work, immediate family, things like that—that Sharon, a middle-aged homeowner living alone in Iowa City, really should have asked during the screening process.
The wickedness definitely escalates when the new roomie observes, “There’s a great liberty in being bad.” The line, ostensibly about first poems, might not make much of an impact on most of us. But for a woman as Midwestern-nice as Sharon, who’s been trying to paper over the lonely, loveless abyss in a sheltered life after being abandoned by her husband and her adult son, the words come as a revelation—one that raises the possibility of an entirely new way of being.
And when it gradually emerges that Robyn has acquired a highly specialized set of illicit skills during her dodgy past in the Bronx and other locales, what follows can’t be called the seduction of the innocent. Think seduction by the innocent, instead, as Sharon wheedles a reluctant Robyn into teaching her the nuanced language of the grift. When sweet, demure, harmless Sharon proves a natural in the criminal arts, the pair’s initial odd-couple relationship gets odder and odder.
At first, this show would seem little more than a brisk walk around the block for veteran actor Julie Oliver, who has immortalized a vivid series of vinegary women before now. But under Marshall Botvinick’s direction, her character’s vulnerability and sublimated desires repeatedly catch her, and us, off guard.
It’s also very gratifying that the far-too-gradual increase in opportunities for women on regional stages has finally caught up with Madeleine Pabis. While we’ve relished her stunningly diverse portfolio of supporting parts and cameos with Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, she’s been a talent long in need of a leading role in a full-length play.
Pabis and Botvinick carefully sculpt Robyn into a person who holds her secrets close; as she divulges them, we can all but hear the groaning of internal hinges that haven’t moved in ages.
Though there are still too many like Pabis on the local scene, productions like this show what they are waiting to do when given a chance.