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« DVD review - Smurfs: The Lost Village | Main | Wakanda Forever! »
Wednesday
Jul122017

Stage Door: An Ode to S. Epatha Merkerson 

Editor's Note: I've been away at the National Critics Institute in CT but will be back in a few days to regular blogging right here at The Film Experience. In the meantime please enjoy this review of one of the shows I saw in my absence, starring two of television's best actresses. The Roommate is playing through July 16th at the Williamstown Theater Festival and you should expect a transfer to NYC stages. - Nathaniel R

S. Epatha Merkerson in rehearsals. Photo by Daniel Rader

She wanted to be a spy… or a baker if espionage didn’t work out. It’s tough to square these  interchangeably silly abandoned dreams with timid Iowa retiree Sharon, standing right there in her well-stocked suburban kitchen. Sharon dreamt of being a spy? — Sharon!?!  Her new roommate doesn’t seem trustworthy but is right about at least one thing: Sharon shouldn’t “mummify” herself this early and needs to get out there and live.

I’m speaking like you know Sharon because I do. Sharon is fictional, you see, but the glorious actress S Epatha Merkerson and the playwright Jen Silverman have breathed such life into this rich idiosyncratic character in the new play The Roommate that for two hours I was convinced otherwise...

The actors role is to illuminate individual characters and reflect humanity back at us. When they do their jobs this superbly, the effect can be entirely transporting. 

Merkerson’s Sharon is about to star in her own personal tragicomedy, but she doesn’t know it yet and she’d never seek the spotlight. She’d grant top billing to her son although he may as well be invisible since he refuses to visit her (and does not appear in the play). She wouldn’t even call herself the co-star since her new strange roommate (Jane Kaczmarek) — a lesbian from the Bronx !!! —so piques her curiousity. You see, Sharon lives entirely through others. She leaves needy rambling messages on her son’s voicemail and sneakily sifts through her roommate’s personal belongings.

Emmy winner Merkerson and Emmy nominee Kaczmarek in rehearsal. If the show goes to Broadway expect Tony nominations.

Merkerson makes Sharon's curiousity endearing while Silverman's fine script reveals that she’s no great detective. Every sign points to her son being gay (including a “girlfriend” who is a self-professed lesbian) but she’s convinced herself otherwise. She’s mystified by her roommates secretive boxes. One contains ceramic sculptures, which look a bit like fertility goddesses. Sharon momentarily buys the lie that they’re voodoo dolls. This lovable fifty-something is frequently and amusingly confused, particularly when it comes to sexuality.

But what are labels anyway? The roommate, a bleach-blonde tough-looking but jittery lesbian who was once married to a man she "really loved," tells Sharon that labels and words don’t paint the full story of who we are. That sounds right to the lonely retiree who has lost both of the labels that once defined her: wife and mother. 

When Sharon sees in her roommate a whole new world of possibility she lunges for it, much to their mutual surprise. She even tries on a whole new fictional role for herself just to see if she can; Merkerson makes sure you get that Sharon is thrilled to watch herself performing with unexpected verve and imagination. 

Of course actors don’t create in a vacuum. Merkerson has fine support in Kaczmarek’s shifty roommate and Silverman’s writing is rich, fluid, and funny. Silverman braids themes, character studies and story elements together with surprising elegance and twisty mischief. Still, given the themes of identity and reinvention, it’s fitting that an actorly triumph elevates the whole to greatness. Merkerson is fascinating to watch as she slowly reveals long dormant aspects of Sharon’s personality, quite funny when she zeroes in on the woman’s awkwardness and learning curves, and beautifully humane as she details the ways in which Sharon’s loneliness has reduced and confined her. When her character hits rock bottom, the racking sobs are hard to shake. Perhaps most impressively, Merkerson ties all of the disparate pieces of Sharon together so cohesively that she always feels like the same woman whether she’s wearing the comedy or the tragedy masks. 

The production runs through July 16th but I'd expect an Off Broadway or Broadway transfer in the near future.

Shifting identities are everywhere else you look in this elegantly crafted play, too, including the roommates stash of fake driver’s licenses. Even the inanimate objects engage in role play. The ceramic sculptures, for example, begin as objects of mystery before taking a comic detour as faux voodoo dolls. When Sharon smashes them in a fit of rage, their third and final role is revealed. 

The broken sculpture pieces lay on the floor with a despondent Sharon, discarded and no longer of use to anyone. Sharon, bless her, will undoubtedly prove more resilient. She already feels younger and more “liberated” despite her sympathetic despair. 

Whoever she’ll become next is left to the imagination when the house lights come up. By this time she’s so real she’s exiting the theater with us. Look around you at older people you otherwise might not have noticed; know that whatever words you might casually use to describe them don’t define them. What did they once want to be?  What label have they lost that once defined them? What rich new role might they still play late in life? 

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Reader Comments (5)

S Epatha Merkerson needs another successful brush with award season. Preferably for film. I want her to triple crown. She so under regarded in the consciousness of the industry and public.

July 12, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I wish Kaczmarek had an Emmy winner, dear!

I love this sort of play.

July 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

She makes my Top 10 in Best Supporting Actress for Black Snake Moan - it's rare that an actor can convey warmth, compassion and decency and still provide a compelling character to viewers. She manages this with ease, so much so that I wanted a sequel about just Samuel L. Jackson and her!

July 13, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterkermit_the_frog

Peggy -- corrected. i really knew that but that's what happens when you're typing fast.

/3rtful -- it's so true. I hope this transfers because I could easily see S Epatha nabbing a third Tony nomination to go with her Emmy.

July 13, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Let's make the movie!

July 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

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