Truly fine in so many ways, Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House is thrilling, surprising and artful. The lovely comedy/drama actually lives up to all the hype it's gotten since it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. And the Alley Theatre has created a moving, inventive production that's one of the best nights of theater offered anywhere this season.
Each and every character is a creative joy. The story opens with Matilde (Josie de Guzman), a Brazilian maid who hates to clean and would rather be telling jokes. As the lights come up, she's delivering a long monologue of a joke. It's all told in Portuguese, so most of the audience doesn't have a clue what she's saying, but never mind. The happiness on Matilde's face makes the punch line worth the wait. And her observations about what makes something funny are so smart: “The perfect joke makes you forget about your life.” It lives somewhere “between an angel and a fart.”
Her harried, irritated employer is Lane (Elizabeth Heflin), a doctor who doesn't have time to clean her own house. Even more important to the story, she believes such chores are beneath her. She didn't go to medical school, she announces, to clean her own house. But she does like her world to be spic-and-span. Everything in her life is in perfect order, including her marriage, or so she believes. But as Matilde observes, “Love is dirty, like a good joke.” And Lane discovers just how messy things can get.
The Clean House
the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.
Through May 27. Tickets start at $19.
Unlike Lane, her sister Virginia (Annalee Jefferies) loves to give a good scrubbing. She wonders at her sister's unwillingness to get her elbows dirty, saying, “If you don't clean, how do you know you're making any progress?” And when she discovers that Matilde is too “depressed” to clean, she offers to put on the maid's apron and take up her vacuum. Matilde is flabbergasted but thrilled. Now she'll have time to work on the “perfect joke.” The only thing is, Lane can't know who's really cleaning her house, as she would never approve of her own sister knowing what's going on in the dirty corners of her life. Only complete strangers are privy to such secrets.
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This strange group of women makes up the quirky, tender core of Ruhl's wonderful tale of love and death. And yes, for all the talk about cleaning, this is ultimately a story about love and death. Swirling in the background are Matilde's much adored but very dead parents and Lane's estranged husband, along with his wacky lover (all four of these oddballs are played with charming passion by Paul Hope and Karmín Murcelo).
What makes this story so different from other tales of love and death is the strange, eccentric grace of Ruhl's writing. Metaphor holds all the odd pieces together. As the house changes, so do the characters. And the play has many gorgeous, true lines poetry, really that send chills up your arms. Real love should bring one “to the point of invention,” and “heaven is a sea of untranslatable jokes.” Ruhl's deeply human poetry alone is enough to make this night worth every penny.
And the stunning performances from every actor make the entire theater radiate with talent. Guzman delivers her best Alley performance ever as the girlish maid with a golden heart. All elbows and knobby knees, she brings a sweet, coltish longing to the character who manages to change every person she encounters. Her energy and heart fill up the stage with such feeling, it's impossible not to adore her. Heflin is hilarious as the brittle doctor who somehow manages to grow a heart in spite of herself. She moves from laughter to tears in a swooning song of emotion at the end of the first act, and captures a life flattened by too much planning and not enough living, making us love her for all her faults. But the swooning soul of this production comes from Jefferies, whose lovably bumbling Virginia is so fully imagined, every gesture feels as though it's coming from some mystical place of truth. When her world comes tumbling down and we watch her mess up everything that she's worked so hard to make clean, it feels like a grand ballet of rage let loose on the stage.
Director David Cromer finds that perfectly timed space between humor and grief that makes this play so unique and so artful, and his direction is often magical. Images that live in the characters' heads float around the stage in cloud-like projections. Add in Takesi Kata's lovely white set, and the entire piece becomes a living, breathing world unto itself one that has the imaginative power to change everyone lucky enough to get a chance to glimpse into it, if only for one moving evening.