I’ve never had a way with women, but the hills of Iowa make me wish that I could.

And I’ve never found a way to say I love you, but if the chance came by, oh I, I would.

But way back where I come from, we never mean to bother, we don’t like to make our passions other people’s concern,

And we walk in the world of safe people, and at night we walk into our houses and burn.

— Dar Williams

By Kelly Oristano

The Roommate, by Jen Silverman, now playing at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, is an extraordinarily funny, smart, and tender exploration of the specific yet familiar identity crisis of a middle-aged American white woman. As directed by Craig Willis and performed by Mary Buss and Lisa Roth, it is a triumph of comic escapism concealing a powerful but palatable dark and serious center.

Sharon (portrayed by Buss) is a 54-year-old woman in Iowa who, after a lifetime of living for others, finds her nest newly empty. Arriving imminently is her new roommate, a near stranger, Robyn (played by Roth.) Robyn’s been all over but she arrives in Iowa most recently from (shudder) The Bronx. Robyn is arty and vivacious where Sharon is homey and staid. Though the two are the same age, Robyn bristles when Sharon refers to them as old ladies. “If you were a president, you’d still be a young president,” Robyn says when she can take the self-inflicted ageism no more.

The first half is sparkling, character-based, comic joy. The laughs are free-flowing and stacked one on top of the other and very smart. Sharon and Robyn getting to know each other as strangers, betraying their own prejudices, and slowly learning about each other in Sharon’s spacious kitchen is top-notch, small-scale theater.

It’s clear, though, that Sharon sought out a roommate — and chose Robyn in particular — to welcome “something more” into her life, and as we approach the middle of the story there’s a stark turn. It stays a comedy, and it stays in Sharon’s kitchen, but once Robyn starts opening doors, Sharon has no reticence about walking, and eventually running, through them.

Buss and Roth are a wonder separately and together. Buss’ Sharon is achingly real and extremely easy to empathize with, but also pleasingly broad and comic. Her reactions to Robyn’s “alternative lifestyle” fuel the energetic comedy.

Roth’s Robyn is a deeply and confidently realized character with a self-protective streak and a subtle slow-burn admiration for Sharon. Both actors’ voices are glorious and full and fun to spend an evening with.

The performance more than merits a second viewing, to watch what Robyn was doing when one happened to be looking at Sharon, and vice versa.

There’s excellent and cohesive design work all around. Steen Mitchell’s airy set and Michael Peterson’s lighting are cute and comfy and expressive together. Erin Wills’ wardrobe tells a story all on its own. There’s also great music throughout and clever prop design from prop master Becca Blanchard. It was gratifying to see that the coffee Robyn and Sharon drink is steaming hot. Small, easy-to-miss things like that sell the illusion of this reality well.

Without revealing any specifics of The Roommate’s dark and serious center, there is a discernible and noble theme coming through the characters and the comedy. It’s partially embedded in the overlong Dar Williams epigraph above, but it’s also in the idea that Sharon learns along with us by the end of the play: It’s never too early to “make up for lost time,” but someday it will be too late. And you probably can’t, anyhow, because that time is lost, and now is new and different time.

Director Willis pointedly quotes playwright Silverman in his program note: “How do you transform, and can we transform, and what does it take to become the thing that we want to become and can we? Can we ever become something other than what we are?”

He and the cast have drilled down into this question and come back with oil, or gold, or whatever the preferred result of psychological drilling should be.

It’s easy to think back to the Sharon we saw at the end of the play and the theatrical magic trick we’ve witnessed and the deceptive simplicity with which it seemed to happen. Learning how a magic trick works is universally hugely disappointing, but here the magic happens right out in the open. It’s an excellent script, superbly acted, in a lovely space.

Do not miss it.

The Roommate continues at OCT

When: Evening performances at 7:30 p.m. on March 5-7, 12-14; matinee performances at 2 p.m. on Feb. 29 and March 8, 15

Where: Oregon Contemporary Theatre, 194 W. Broadway, Eugene

Tickets: $20-42 ($15 for students), available through the OCT box office, 541-465-1506, or online at octheatre.org