Jen Silverman noticed there weren’t a dearth of plays that centered the stories of middle-aged women — so she wrote one.
“The Roommate,” which opens the season at 1812 Productions on Oct. 2, chronicles the unlikely friendship that forms between two fifty-something women who find themselves sharing a house in Iowa. Sharon, a mild-mannered housewife and mother, grapples with her identity in the wake of a divorce. Robyn, a free-spirited lesbian from the Bronx, pushes her new companion’s boundaries in surprising and satisfying ways.
Alternately funny and poignant, the play considers how women can reinvent themselves when they stop defining their value in relation to men.
Since its 2015 debut, Silverman’s dark comedy has proved a popular hit, with productions at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre and the prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. The availability of two juicy roles for an underserved demographic of performers, as well as the frankness with which Silverman addresses issues of aging and coming into your full self, seems central to its success.
Silverman sought to tackle these themes head-on.
“I wanted to look at the invisibility Sharon contends with — how people look past her, don’t see her or see her incorrectly,” the queer playwright told PGN by email. “They assume she’s just a nice middle-aged Iowan lady, but she’s actually a fierce ball of longing and anger and potential. And with Robyn, I was drawn to her relationship to transformation: she believes that she can change, she starts a new life, and she imparts this fervent belief to Sharon even as Robyn is seemingly failing at that change. Both of their stories revolve around their relationship to visibility and change, and although I’m not yet middle-aged, those are elements of my own experience as well: the feeling of being unseen and the desire to transform.”
The question of how to realize such a transformation has been at the forefront of the rehearsal process, according to Jennifer Childs, who plays Sharon and who is the producing artistic director of 1812 Productions.
“As a woman of a certain age now, there is a certain amount of invisibility that comes with being in your 50s,” Childs said in an interview. “A part of the draw is being able to give voice to a transformation that happens for two women who have been told that they can only be one thing. To see something that is really about a female friendship is powerful.”
Grace Gonglewski, who plays Robyn, agreed. “We are in a climate right now where people think they can’t connect,” she said. “In this play, people from very different worlds find a bridge to each other. They teach each other and they learn powerful things from each other, which is something we all can learn from right now.”
In some ways, the real-life relationship between Childs and Gonglewski mirrors the expectations thrust upon their characters. Both women are mothers to teenagers — their daughters were born a month apart and are best friends, according to Gonglewski — who will soon contend with an empty nest. Both are women who have carved out successful and enduring careers in a business that famously values youth and the next big thing.
Friends for close to three decades, Childs pointed out that she and Gonglewski often appeared together in their early acting days, usually at Old City’s Arden Theatre Company. Yet “The Roommate” marks the first time they’ve shared a stage in thirteen years.
“Our daughters are so excited to see their mothers on stage together, because they never have before,” said Childs. “It’s great to have a play that allows us to work so closely again.”
Director Harriet Power believes that audiences will be drawn to the complexity of the story, which she described as “neither farce nor naturalism.”
“I laughed aloud a lot when I read it,” Power said. “And as I’ve told [Childs and Gonglewski], this script really holds up to repeated readings and repeated rehearsal. That is the litmus test. I think the audience is going to go bananas.”
Philadelphia audiences already know Silverman’s work. In 2015, InterAct Theatre Company staged the world premiere of her play “The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane,” which highlighted the experiences of queer women of color in seemingly progressive South Africa. The play also traveled to Williamstown, where out actor Samira Wiley played the title role.
Silverman displays a commitment to the breadth of queer stories across her entire body of work. “I gravitate toward characters who are shaped by outsider experience, by a fluidity of desire, by a fluid understanding of gender, and by a tenuous relationship to power and disempowerment — things that, while not definitive of all queer experiences, are specific to mine,” she said.
“Queer stories have changed my life at formative moments, but those stories were completely different from each other structurally, dramatically and politically. That feels important to me — the multiplicity of our stories, our experiences, our beautiful contradictions. I’m excited as our national concept of what queer stories are continues to expand and deepen.”
“The Roommate” runs Sept. 26-Oct. 20 at Plays & Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Place. For tickets and information, please visit 1812productions.org.