Linda Powell

Switching Gears in Middle-age: The Roommate opens at Long Wharf

Preview of The Roommate, Long Wharf Theatre

Mike Donahue is a Yale School of Drama graduate back in New Haven to direct Jen Silverman’s The Roommate at Long Wharf Theatre, which begins its run tonight until November 4th. Donahue directed the premiere of the play at the Humana festival in Louisville in 2015. Last season he directed Silverman’s The Moors at Playwrights Realm in New York, and his acclaimed production of Silverman’s Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties recently closed at MCC, New York. So one could say he is familiar with Silverman’s work and her knack for, as he put it, “setting up expectations, then quietly, delicately subverting them.”

During his time at YSD, Donahue served as the artistic director of the Yale Summer Cabaret for two seasons, a good background for the diverse range of plays Donahue has directed. In style, The Roommate could be called a bit of a bait and switch. Sharon, a middle-aged woman, now divorced and living alone in Iowa, takes in a roommate, Robyn. You’re thinking maybe a female Odd Couple? Or maybe a plot with a mysterious man in it—like the late romance of last season’s Fireflies at Long Wharf? Donahue says the play “seems naturalistic” initially, but tends toward the absurdist style of theater he prefers. One thing that interested Donahue in the play is the fact that it’s about mature women and “not vis à vis men, the characters are not defined by relations to men.”


The play was reworked for its run last year at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which Donahue also directed. The goal each time, for the director, is to see the work anew, through the process of collaboration. “So much is about the particular chemistry of the two people playing the two characters, finding different layers of who they are.” In the Long Wharf production Tasha Lawrence plays Robyn, the role she originated at Humana, and Sharon is played by Long Wharf veteran Linda Powell (Our Town, A Doll’s House). For Donahue, the play is “about the power of transformation,” what happens when people not alike find something they can share, to find out “how another person sees you.”

While the play is “very, very funny, it goes to places,” Donahue said, “very sharp, with an edge.” Those viewers who saw Silverman’s The Moors at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2016 will remember the play’s surprising comedy, and its dark and rich irony as it subverted a Gothic tale with its wild sense of comic situations. For Donahue, Silverman’s plays have “real heart, and a strong sense of language that is tonally off-kilter,” a quality that attracts him to her work. She’s “incredibly funny and unbelievably talented” and he finds “thrills in the turns her plays take.”

Revisiting the play at Long Wharf’s mainstage takes the play closer to its earliest incarnation at the Actors’ Theatre in Louisville where it was done completely in the round. Each staging “changes the dynamic,” Donahue says, but each new staging has to find the “kind of spark” that makes theater “transcendent and overwhelming.”

Mike Donahue

Mike Donahue

The Roommate kicks off the Long Wharf 2018-19 season, described as “a comedy about what it takes to re-route your life—and what happens when the wheels come off.”


The Roommate
By Jen Silverman
Directed by Mike Donahue

Long Wharf Theatre
October 10-November 4, 2018

For my review of The Roommate at Long Wharf, go to the New Haven Independent, here.

On the Town

Review of Our Town at Long Wharf Theatre

A lasting impression made by the current production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, directed by Gordon Edelstein, at the Long Wharf is the sheer size of the cast. With 21 speaking roles fleshed-out with at least 13 local extras, Edelstein marshals crowd scenes that indeed look like a town. This Our Town is based on the ideal of community as people who share a location and a way of life, such as those who have sustained the Long Wharf Theatre for 50 years in the same location.

As the Stage Manager, Myra Lucretia Taylor has the cadence of natural speech, and comes across like a friendly tour guide and a familiar presence—like a neighbor, in short. She’s proud of her town but she’s not blinded to its lack of excitement, nor is she apologetic. The tone of her narration and asides comes into focus when she states that a time capsule is being put together to be imbedded in a foundation, and says she wants a copy of “this play” to be included. The play we’re watching has the ambition to be “representative”—to tell, to the ages, what it was like, then and there. Early twentieth-century in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. But is that really still an “Anytown, U.S.A.”?

Perhaps not, but Edelstein’s decision to cast the play “color blind,” means that the demographic of Grover’s Corners has shifted rather radically from the all-white enclave Wilder doubtless envisioned. We might be surprised that, in the listing of local places of worship, there’s no mention of a synagogue, but that just goes to show how segregated by geography much of the U.S. was. Not so much now, and that’s what makes Our Town risk seeming more of a “quaint” history lesson than it should be. Notice how only “the Polish” are given their own “town” within Our Town—an immediate indication of where the play occurs within the waves of immigration to the States and migration to the north. Of course, all this is deliberate by Wilder who wants to depict Yankee rectitude and its long-standing ties to a place where, as we’re told, the indigenous population—Cotahatchee tribes—has long since disappeared, but for genetic material carried by “maybe three families.”

Ethnic diversity—this production makes clear—is something that we can’t help notice, whether as presence or absence, and that may be the strongest message in the Long Wharf’s Our Town. If we still want Grover’s Corners to represent us, as a generalized, idealized image of the U.S. small town, for that time capsule, then we have to alter Wilder’s vision willfully and adapt the image, and that’s what Edelstein’s production does. A truly “post-racial” U.S. won’t think of the couples before us on stage as “mixed.” We’re not there yet, and that’s one of the strongest arguments for Edelstein’s approach: his Our Town says something about where we, as a nation, were in Wilder’s time and where we are now.

And that is very much Wilder’s intention: to look at the local fauna sub specie aeternitatis, to see how the customs of any given time look pretty paltry when looked at from eternity. That’s a big call and the play’s wherewithal to do so is what keeps us in the grip of Our Town to the end. And we note the little touches that keep prodding us toward realizations about what is generally called “the human condition”—which, the Stage Manager would probably say, is just a grand way of saying “how folks live.” Her mention of scenery—“for those who feel there should be scenery”—highlights the stripped down nature of this make believe, so that we’re free to imagine the town, especially in the early going when the rhythms of the town’s “day in the life” are the main concern.

Later, there’s a wedding that looks like the kind of non-denominational ceremonies we meet with more often these days, and finally, in the most affecting segment, Act 3, the rendition of a graveyard subtly mirrors us—the audience—to ourselves. We’re all people in chairs staring straight ahead, very much inside the moment out of time Wilder’s play strives for. Death looks like a Town Hall meeting, and there’s a certain human comedy to seeing Joe Stoddard (James Andreassi) and Mateo Gomez (Sam Craig) as undertaker and mourner stumbling about among “the graves.” Wilder wants to show us how simple and likeable people are when trying to grasp the ungraspable. And it’s only in Act 3 that the play really becomes the story of Emily (Jenny Leona) whose awed grasp of what it means to be alive and to no longer be alive moves the play’s tone—as it must—beyond the tragic to the cosmic.

Along the way, there are many nicely done moments to enjoy: the gentle fun at the expense of the pedantic Professor Willard (Steve Routman) and Taylor’s curt nod when the Prof describes the racial make-up of the majority; the McMillan twins as what comes to seem the Crowells’ monopoly on paper delivery in the town; Don Sparks giving Doc Gibbs some Jimmy Stewart inflections, adding a touch of the Capraesque; Leon Addison Brown, as Editor Webb, fielding questions from the audience with the folkiness of a fireside chat; Linda Powell delivering Mrs. Gibbs’ unsentimental view from beyond the grave; Christina Rouner’s harried Mrs. Webb, who tells us rather breathlessly that she didn’t know how to prepare her daughter for her wedding night—something elders in the audience may still recall—and lets us know that weddings are horrible; Rey Lucas as George Gibbs, flashing a winning smile back at the Stage Manager after he woos Emily, having admitted he’d rather stay in Grover’s Corners for her sake than go off to college, and the well-played silent comedy before his uneasy chat with his soon-to-be father-in-law; Jenny Leona is a fresh and blonde Emily, the town’s golden girl whose tragedy—if you like—is that she hasn’t a thought to do anything, barely out of high school, but marry a teenage boy and add to the town’s population. Indeed, the mothers in the play—Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb—keep before us the almost endless domestic activity that was simply the way of things back before anyone had even invented the term “household drudgery.” Leona gives us an Emily sharper than George, who Lucas plays with much more charm than smarts, but who is smart enough to know he can’t do any better. Ethnic diversity may have come to Grover’s Corners; feminism still seems a long way off.

Wilder’s important breakthrough in Our Town is setting naturalistic action in a context that foregrounds the playacting, a technique—which the Long Wharf production keeps firmly in view—that should reveal to us how much of our own lives are just that. We are players who strut and fret upon the stage of our town, wherever that happens to be, just like the players in Our Town. If the point of theater is, as Hamlet says, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature, then the Long Wharf’s Our Town fully achieves that purpose. You may leave the play wondering what you’ve done with your life.


Our Town By Thornton Wilder Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls; Sound Design/Composer: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Hope Rose Kelly; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Assistant Stage Manager: Michelle Lauren Tuite; Casting: Calleri Casting; Photos: T. Charles Erickson

Long Wharf Theatre October 8-November 2, 2014

Hello Dolly!

s House  LWT  067 The Long Wharf Theatre production of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House managed a surprising feat: it made the play more entertaining without significantly altering it.  If you're a purist who wants to see Ibsen played straight, it does that; but if you think that a play like ADH, with its winsome wifey who gets into some hot water due to an "innocent" forgery, then gets out of it only to slam the door on her happy-ever-after home, is a bit dated and could use some kind of make-over, well, this show does that too.

And that's what I found surprising: first, that one could perch Ibsen on the terrain of a sitcom or a soap; second, that I found myself thinking, well, isn't ADH simply a more revered soap?  After all, the plot of the story is pure soap opera, and there's nothing in the dialogue that aims beyond the play's basic premise, which is something like: happiness is only skin deep.  Scratch it, and it bleeds.  So why not give us an A Doll's House (1879) that resonates in a world of McMansions where -- as is only too timely -- a bit of financial chicanery might bring the whole cloud castle down on a bank manager's ears.

Gordon Edelstein, who did the adaptation and directed, deserves great credit for mining the comic potential in the material.  It mainly seemed to be a matter of emphasis.  The dialogue, a bit modernized, was close to any version of the play we might already be familiar with, but this production included laughs that might be in Ibsen's script but which a less enterprising director might overlook.  There was a breeziness to it that kept it from taking itself too seriously, a breeziness derived from the giddy fun of looking into our neighbors' glass house.

What's important, for a modern production, is that we not be laughing at Nora, the little bluebird, squirrel, chipmunk, as though she were simply in over her airhead and deserving of a little domestic contretemps for our amusement.  Ana Reeder made the most of making Nora likeable, cannily dim rather than actually so.  She managed the protean shifts that are necessary -- the play makes us see -- to be the "perfect wife": temptress, adoring partner, household manager, confidante to friends both male and female, defender of the threatened nest, even sacrificial victim (the latter a melodramatic touch that can't help seeming a bit 19th century).  When, in the end, she does what she's got to do, the shifts from comically desperate to happily saved to proudly determined occur a bit too fast for realism, but Reeder "kept it real," as they say, helped by the change to casual jeans and sweatshirt after the hiked skirt, hose and low neckline of her belle of the ball costume as a dancing peasant girl.  The "street clothes" underscored that her role in the household had been a command performance all along, and it was time for a curtain call.

In the supporting cast, special mention goes to Tim Hopper as Dr. Peter Rank, the ailing best friend of Nora's husband Torvald who carries a torch for her himself.  Their scenes had enough heat to make up for the rather lukewarm affections of Torvald, and Hopper's doomed departure, in cowboy costume with a big cigar going, deserved an ovation.  As Torvald, Adam Trese kept a part that could easily be a caricature sympathetic, even up to his panicked outburst at Nora for exposing him to his enemies.  I liked him best at the end as he babbled about how he forgave her, sitting in his big papa chair, and his attempts to defeat her logic resonate so well, even 21st century males might easily hear Ibsen laughing at us.

As the villain in the piece, Mark Nelson's Nils Krogstad had a kind of shaky petulance that worked well enough in confronting Nora with her wrongdoings, and in his pleas to be reinstated at the bank, but made it hard to see what her friend Christine Linde (Linda Powell) could see in him.  He seemed more eager to end it all rather than able to blackmail a boss's wife or rekindle an old romance.

Michael Yeargan's set was a wonderfully detailed doll's house, its fakery part of its appeal, with plenty of floorspace for Ibsen's and Edelstein's playthings to move about and grope toward some satisfactory vision of the future.

And what of the kids?  It may be much easier for today's male to accept without much soul-searching Nora's claim that she needs to educate herself and find a place in the world; but does today's woman find it any easier to pursue that goal at the sacrifice of her ties to her children than women would in Ibsen's day?  "You've come a long way, baby," since Ibsen's Nora first walked out -- but, Edelstein's production seems to ask, "how far would you go?"

s House  LWT  177

LONG WHARF THEATRE, Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director; Ray Cullom, Managing Director


A DOLL'S HOUSE by Henrik Ibsen, Adapted and Directed by Gordon Edelstein, Set Design by Michael Yeargan

through May 23, 2010