Set and staged in Iowa City, Riverside’s two-woman play ‘The Roommate’ explores the desire to burn it all down and start over

Joy Vandervort-Cobb and Mary Mayo star in Riverside Theatre’s ‘The Roommate’, April 2023. — courtesy of Rob Merritt

Though the play takes place in Iowa City, and was written by an alumnus of the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop, this marks the first time The Roommate has been staged in Iowa City, according to Adam Knight.

“I knew the story [before moving here], I knew it took place in this quiet, Midwestern town, but at the time I didn’t know Iowa City,” said Knight, Riverside Theatre’s producing artistic director of the past four years. “It was only when I picked back up the play last year that I was shocked to see that, and all of a sudden they’re mentioning the Co-op and the farmers market and Gilbert Street, and it was really fun.”

Knight moved to Iowa City in 2019 to assume his post as Riverside’s artistic director. The Roommate and an upcoming production of Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins will mark the first complete season of live theater programmed on his watch.

Often described as The Odd Couple meets Breaking Bad, The Roommate opened on April 28 and will continue at Riverside through May 14. The script, written by Jen Silverman, was first produced in 2015.

Silverman was one of the 20 most produced playwrights of the 2019-20 theater season, according to American Theatre. That list also included names like August Wilson, Lynn Nottage and Tennessee Williams (the latter of whom also came through the University of Iowa).

Over the past few years, Silverman’s creative reach has expanded to include novels like The Island Dwellers and We Play Ourselves, and television scripting for the Netflix mini-series Tales of the City.

The Roommate is a two-person play focused on an Iowa City resident, Sharon (Joy Vandervort-Cobb), a 50-something recent divorcee who posts a listing for a new roommate. Robyn (Mary Mayo), a former entrepreneur fleeing the Bronx looking for a fresh start, responds to the listing.

“This play is by someone who knows this community and clearly has lived here and one of the unique pleasures of our production is that we get to experience it in the setting in which it takes place,” Knight said.

That much was also apparent to Joy Vandervort-Cobb, one of the play’s two leads, as she made her way to Iowa City for the first time in April.

“Jen Silverman, they constantly refer to Iowa City as being a very cultural city [in the play] — they talk about hot yoga and a reading group and obviously the university comes in,” said Vandervort-Cobb, who, ironically, is a visitor to Iowa City despite playing the character rooted in the town.

“Mary Mayo has driven me around a lot of places here so I can see what I’m talking about,” she added.

Devotees of the Iowa City theater scene may recognize Vandervort-Cobb, who appeared in a virtual Riverside co-production of the one-woman show No Child… which streamed in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In rehearsing for The Roommate, Vandervort-Cobb enjoyed the moments of discovery that have emerged while playing off of Mayo and discussing the show with director Nina Morrison.

“We did a lot of table work trying to decide how these women became who they were,” said Vandervort-Cobb. “In rehearsal, what I’ve discovered is there’s a reason Sharon is exactly the way she is, so when her transformation happens, we’re all surprised, including her … You certainly, in the beginning, can’t expect the ending.”

Joy Vandervort-Cobb and Mary Mayo star in Riverside Theatre’s ‘The Roommate’, April 2023. — courtesy of Rob Merritt

These discussions helped bridge the gap of experience between Vandervort-Cobb and Sharon.

Where Vandervort-Cobb had a pleasant conversation with her son over the phone shortly after arriving in Iowa City, Sharon’s calls to her son are more tense, reflecting a strained relationship. Sharon’s character, the more uptight of the two protagonists, also tends to be a bit more naive.

Perhaps most noteworthy during the development of the play is that Sharon does not present as a Black woman on the page.

“We’ve talked about the racial — or lack of racial — qualities in the play and how that impacts me, who is a Black woman,” said Vandervort-Cobb. “As we said around the round table discussing the play, we talked about how there is nothing that defines her as a Black woman in the play. It’s really interesting that she is likely surrounded by white women, and her presentation is conscious of that.”

One particular facet of the production that’s stood out to Vandervort-Cobb is the fact that this is a show about two women experiencing middle age differently.

“The older character is not dropping in, dropping a bomb and leaving,” she noted. “That’s lovely to wrestle with too as an actor of a certain age, [to have] a part that allows you to bring the breadth of your world and what you understand and what you know.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 318.