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The Clean House

When my mother died laughing, my father shot himself.--- Matilde
There are things, big invisible things that come unannounced and we just have to make way. --- Charles
The Wilma's production of Sara Ruhl's A Clean House is the first since its celebrated World Premiere at Yale Repertory Theater in September. Brazilian maid, Matilde (Abigail Lopez), opens the play with a joke told in Portuguese -- funny once removed. Her parents, she confides, were the two funniest people in Brazil, and when they died it was left to her to be the funniest. She is searching for the perfect joke. Although Matilde often is funny, her idea of humor is about jokes, the idea of a joke, rather than about what's funny in life's situations. She is a maid who hates to clean, recently hired by Lane (Lizbeth Mackay), a successful doctor. An outsider who enters the lives of two sisters, Lane and Virginia (Jayne Houdyshell), Matilde stands to the side of the principal dynamic until she is instrumental in performing a very special service.

Lane and Virginia, suffer from compulsions though they both believe they are in control of their lives. Virginia has a cleaning fetish. Because she needs to maintain cleanliness and order, she makes a deal with Matilde to do her work for her at Lane's house so long as Matilde will take credit for it.

Virginia's obsession is related to her sister's. Lane must maintain order in her life. She sees herself as a competent professional who has everything under control and, confident of her superiority, keeps patients, husband, and other areas of her life within clean and impersonal parameters. Her desire for tidiness in her life extends to her house, the cleaning of which, however, is beneath her. Sister Virginia believes that cleaning one's house is something personal and not a job to be farmed out to a stranger.

Two events collide with the concurrent arrival of Lane's unusual new maid and the news that Charles, her surgeon husband (Gerry Bamman), has left her. Suddenly Lane's emotionally clean house gets dirty. Charles has been blindsided by a patient, and jolted out of his former existence. He has found his soul mate in Ana (Judith Roberts) who, unlike Lane, is a life force. Paradoxically, the plot's catalysts are a cleaning woman who doesn't clean and a life force who is dying.

Act one is largely expository. Under the laughs we find that these women have done a lot of suffering. The old joke is told about a comedian not having her timing down, and this act could use a little help with its own torpid timing.

The second act gets messy, metaphorically as well as physically. Virginia gives up on restoring order to Lane's house, and she trashes the living room like a rock band in a hotel room. Things take off on absurd trajectories. Charles goes to Alaska on a highly improbable mission, and when we see him, snow falls on him, rather like Linus and his cloud. Some people can see figments of other's imaginations. Ana emerges for the amigave (Portuguese) attractive force that she is, and bonding occurs among everyone except, initially, Lane, who clings to her aloofness as long as she can sustain it. As her tidy world fractures, and she becomes more integrated with the others, she learns compassion.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl constructs The Clean House in an intriguing way. Ana and Matilde are agents of change, and after encountering them Lane and Virginia will never be the same. The play's action happens among the women. The man's function is to fall in love and then get out of the way, leaving the women to deal.

Ruhl shows that she can get more than one use out of a situation as people and environments are recycled. A supine woman on the stage is dead. The next minute she may be someone else in childbirth. Further, Ruhl fashions an uneasy mix of funny and sad, except the sad parts are more about the concept of sad and the funny parts are not so much funny as they are a demonstration of funny. The play is the opposite of touchy-feely, and the distancing takes place from the first foreign language joke.

The actors handle the meta-realistic acting well. The lines and on-cue laughing can't be easy. The set is an almost all white living room with a wall of washers and dryers stacked tall across the back, a symbolic laundromat. Behind the initially sterile living room another space will be discovered.

Along with the play's structural collisions, spaces collide on the stage. Theater audiences are long familiar with multiple uses of space, the age-old empty stage representing many locations. However in this play, as in some of Charles Mee's plays and other new work, we encounter one space spilling over into another, as more than one location occupies the same space at the same time. It could be simultaneously interior and exterior, concurrent past and present, or a bi-location smearing two places together.

Director Fish's vision of The Clean House appears very much tied to the fluidity of the space. The scenic design is well realized by Andrew Lieberman. There is isolated use of music, but more would be a definite plus. Despite the fact that the play takes itself quite seriously, and the playwright takes a chance at audience alienation with crafted distancing, this bizarre domestic comedy works and it works well.

Editor's Note: This, Ms. Ruhl's sixth play, won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for Best Play Written in English by a Female Playwright. Previous recipients include Paula Vogel, Caryl Churchill, and Wendy Wasserstein.

By Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Daniel Fish

Cast: Abigail Lopez, Lizbeth Mackay, Jayne Houdyshell, Gerry Bamman, Judith Anna Roberts
Set Design: Andrew Lieberman
Lighting Design: Heather Carson with additional lighting design by Russell H. Champa
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Sound Design: Eric Shim Running time: approx 90 mins with one 15 min intermission
The Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street (Avenue of the Arts), 215.893.9456, www.wilmatheater.org
12/01/04- 01/09/05 Opening 12/08.
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 12/08 performance
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