The Clean House
Zach Theatre's production is so good that you wish you were onstage with the characters
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., Aug. 1, 2008
The Clean House
Zach Theatre, Whisenhunt Arena Stage, through Aug. 31
Running time: 2 hr, 20 min
Sometimes, when a play begins, you think that it's going to be one thing, and then it's not. As The Clean House opens, a young Brazilian woman is telling a long joke in Portuguese.
There is no translation. She thinks it's hilarious. She works as a maid. All righty, here we go. Maybe it's a play about the lives of highly educated immigrants working menial jobs or something.
But that's not it at all. Mathilde (Smaranda Ciceu), the maid, has come to America after the death of her parents, who were the two funniest people in Brazil. They made each other laugh so hard that her mother actually died from a joke, and her father soon after. Until their passing, Mathilde was third-funniest, and now the title has fallen to her – which is not that fun, as it turns out. Now she's been hired by Lane (Lauren Lane), a doctor, to be a live-in maid, which might be OK except that cleaning makes Mathilde sad. Lane does not understand this. Does Mathilde need medication so she can clean?
Such are the broad, gentle brushstrokes with which playwright Sarah Ruhl paints her characters and their lives. Is it hazy and undefined? Sure. Does it seem a little goofy and unrealistic? Yes. One wonders how Ruhl described this story to strangers as she was writing it. "It's about this funny maid, see. Then she gets sad."
Yet in keeping it simple, she has created points of light out of her characters, beacons in a murky world that help us connect to something solid. Lane means well in her endearingly clumsy attempts to communicate with Mathilde, who, despite her calling as a jokester, plays the straight man more often than not. Lane's sister Virginia (Chronicle contributor Barbara Chisholm) arrives, desperately eager to clean Lane's house. She just really likes things to be clean. Sure, Virginia uses cleaning as a method of scouring away the vast disappointment with which she regards her life, but what you see is a woman who wants to make things tidy. Any part of you that has ever wanted to straighten up the papers on someone else's desk will reach out to Virginia with open arms.
In the course of their bizarre arrangement in which Mathilde is paid to sit around and watch Virginia clean, the pair discover evidence that Lane's husband is having an affair. How could he? He's just not that kind of man, Virginia insists. It's true: Yes, he is having an affair, and no, he is not that kind of man.
To say more of the plot would be to reveal moments that should not be spoiled in advance. Many of them are hilarious. It's so good, in fact, that you wish you were actually onstage with these women as they navigate betrayal, sickness, and ultimately forgiveness.
One of the joys of seeing plays with great roles for women over the age of 22 is that the audience gets to appreciate the hugeness of the abilities developed by those women over decades of work. Under Dave Steakley's direction, Chisholm and Lane are masters of the stage and a joy to watch.
The Clean House is a story about compassion and rising above our own needs to serve others. Zach Theatre selected an excellent script and did not waste the material.