Ruhl of the Road
Western Stage constructs a droll portrait of emotional family clutter.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
At one point in The Clean House at The Western Stage, a perfect, poised, pristine, professional woman in white and usually in control breaks down in front of the audience, crying and laughing at the same time. It’s just so right. This five-person play on a multipurpose set in a small black box stage of a rural community college theater captures the essence of our time – a joke so funny it could kill you.
Written by 34-year-old MacArthur “genius” Fellowship awardee Sarah Ruhl, The Clean House was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. It peeks in on a messy period in the lives of five believably outrageous, familiarly archetypal characters writ large enough to tap into the racial unconscious while just a hair more extreme than folk we know very well. The play moves at a fast clip with the aid of impeccably timed lighting designed by Derek Duarte on a very clever minimalist set designed by David Parker.
The lights rise on an expensive-looking, white-on-white modernist living room overlooked by a balcony that is none of the above. This balcony sits on a white base that serves as the screen for supertitles – or, in this case – ironic captions. Onto the stage struts a hearty, beautiful, confident young woman in black, Matilde (Roxana Sanchez). With great gusto Matilde begins a very long joke, supports it with full-body pantomime, scans the audience for response – like any standup comic does, eh? – all the time speaking in Portuguese. “A woman tells a joke in Portuguese” reads the supertitle.
Matilde abruptly leaves the stage as the lights dim briefly and on comes Lane (Suzanne Sturn). Lane reads the titles. This aforementioned woman, used to being in control of her life, is having a difficult time with her new Brazilian housekeeper, Matilde, who is depressed at the death of her parents and – inconveniently for a housekeeper – hates cleaning.
The white silk pantsuited Lane paces around her impeccable living room, anxious at some imperceptible disarray: “I didn’t go to medical school to clean my own house.” All of Sturn’s considerable acting chops are required to paint a sympathetic portrait of Lane, a woman wrapped very very tight, accustomed to leading a well-managed life, who serves her patients well, loves her socially appropriate surgeon husband, and plays by all the rules. Her life comes apart nevertheless. “I’m always capable of making a rational decision,” she says, and it’s a moment of deep pathos beautifully drawn.
Lights dim, “Lane” is replaced by “Virginia,” in the titles. As Bryn Mawr-educated Virginia, who fills the emptiness of her days with obsessive cleaning, Jani Davis turns just one extra twist of the dial for a character a tad more obsessive than everyone’s familiar Virgo neatnik. She conjures a good-hearted neurosis (“I never thought the world was good enough for children,” she explains.).
The development and interaction of these three characters serves as the architecture of the first act. On the balcony above them, Matilde’s memories of her family life in Brazil are played out by Paul Stout and Carmalita Shreve as her mother and father. “My father was the funniest man in the village… my mother was the second funniest… we were the funniest people in Brazil.” Matilde’s mother and father live their days in romantic hilarity. (He worked for a whole year on a joke to tell his wife on their anniversary, with tragic consequences.) Now Matilde is on a life quest for the perfect joke, “afraid if I found it, it would kill me.” Roxana Sanchez is Matilde to a “T” with the swagger of an athlete and the chutzpah of a lifelong class clown. “It isn’t funny in translation,” she says as she delivers another joke in Portugese.
There’s no point telling more about the plot of The Clean House. It just sounds silly without the irrepressible lightheartedness of presentation, the delight of the droll supertitles and the rapid-fire scene changes that evoke grins of appreciation, and the driest possible delivery of dead-on aphorisms for our time within contexts that are completely absurd. Ruhl’s wise-without-preaching script is perfectly matched by a precision machine of Western Stage actors completely immersed in their characters, in a production that never falters in timing, intensity or tone. Director Teresa K. Pond might have had gems to work with, but polished them to brilliance.
The characters hang the armature of their lives on families, households, work, just doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Infidelity, seething sibling imprints from childhood, wisdom about breast cancer, modern medicine, lives gone astray, forgotton purpose… such weighty themes are the stuff of humor and pathos. Sometimes, and lately more than ever it seems, the deliciousness of life’s absurd comedy is all you really have to hold on to.
THE CLEAN HOUSE plays in the Studio Theater, Hartnell College Performing Arts Center, 411 Central Ave., Salinas, through Nov. 23 and also Dec. 5-7. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $20/adult and $17/kids, seniors, military. Call 755-6816 or see www.westernstage.com.