Reviewed by Judy Richter
Sarah Ruhl's "The Clean House," enjoying its Northern California premiere at TheatreWorks, was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and understandably so. This witty, thought-provoking work manages to examine several issues simultaneously while creating interesting characters.
The play starts with the premise that Matilde (Stephanie Beatriz), a live-in maid from Brazil, no longer wants to clean house for her employers. The wife of the house, Lane (Heather Ehlers), a busy, successful physician, thinks Matilde might be depressed and tries to medicate her, but Matilde just doesn't like to clean house. On the other hand, Lane's sister, Virginia (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone), a stay-at-home wife, loves to clean, obsessively so. Since she has too much time on her hands, she tells Matilde she'll clean Lane's house, too, as long as Matilde doesn't tell.
The arrangement works well until Lane comes home early, finds Virginia there ironing and announces that her husband, Charles (Michael Cooke), also a busy, successful physician, has left her for one of his breast cancer patients, 63-year-old Ana (Olivia Negrˆ„n), whom he calls his soulmate. Charles and Ana try to reconcile with Lane, but she's appalled. Over time, though, the four women form their own family.
Although Charles becomes somewhat peripheral, each woman has a distinct, interesting personality, and director Juliette Carrillo directs each actress at just the right tone. Beatriz has a wonderfully expressive face and body as Matilde talks fondly and sadly about her deceased parents, who were professional comedians, and about her quest to tell the perfect joke. She introduces the play as a Chaplinesque character all in black with a black bowler as she tries to keep up with an erratic spotlight and then tell what she says is a very funny joke -- in Portuguese. Ehlers makes Lane suitably uptight and rigid to start, but through the course of the play, Lane learns to show a softer, more compassionate side. Cone plays Virginia as a frustrated woman who loses some of her obsessiveness and gains more self-confidence. The catalyst for their changes is Negrˆ„n's Ana, a kind, courageous woman who lives life to the fullest. Negrˆ„n and Cooke also portray Matilde's parents (choreographed by Paco Gomes). The women also learn about the thin line between tears and laughter.
Ruhl sets the action in "a metaphysical Connecticut," thus giving rein to some of the play's more imaginative elements, such as shadow puppets designed by Lynn Jeffries and projections by lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt. Kate Edmunds' set accommodates these elements as well as Lane and Charles' austere, white living room and Ana's balcony overlooking the ocean (sound design by Cliff Caruthers). The costumes by Maggie Morgan work well except for Lane's high heels, which seem impractical for a doctor who presumably spends a lot of time on her feet.
Besides the sheer enjoyment of the play itself, it's gratifying to see a play that has substantive parts for older women.