The Clean House
Also see Richard's review of Return of the Bedbug
There are two keys to the swirling, time-bending outburst of words and movement that is Sarah Ruhl's brilliant theater piece The Clean House. First, a hefty chunk of the dialogue is in untranslated Portuguese or Spanish, or occasionally both at the same time. Second, that doesn't matter at all; in fact, the effect is more charming than confusing. Or at least not any more confusing than the fact that space and time in Miss Ruhl's universe don't operate in accustomed ways.
Alaska, Brazil, Argentina, an apartment that may be in New York, and a house in what Miss Ruhl coyly describes as "a metaphysical Connecticut" cohabit without conflict on a single set in the confined space of the Studio Theater at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis. Anchored by wonderful Roni Geva as Mathilde, a Brazilian housemaid who is terribly depressed at the thought of cleaning, but inspired by her sacred quest to invent the world's funniest joke, the cast moves with great dexterity and perfect timing through a story that involves love and loss, obsession and obligation, and a trek through the snow in search of a cure for cancer, all in the space of an hour and forty-five minutes, including an intermission. It's exhausting to describe it, much less to sit through it, but the exhaustion is the best kind, the kind caused by catharsis and by deep, deep laughter.
The inimitable John Rensenhouse returns to the Rep to play the frightfully earnest John, a doctor who must explain to his wife that he has found a true soul mate, in Yiddish his "basherte," and that such a connection must transcend the vows of marriage. That's okay, because his wife Lane is a self-important surgeon who has no interest in anything outside her calling, and so doesn't rate much sympathy; as played by Andrea Cirie, she is – at least at the beginning – as meticulously coiffed and clad, and as impossibly stiff, as any ice princess in theater history. She melts, of course, partly due to the heat supplied by the fabulous June Gable as Ana, the soul mate, an Argentinean Jew who is, sadly, dying of cancer. But that's okay, too, because Ana is calmly resigned and gets to choose her own improbable but wonderfully appropriate exit. The catalyst that brings about the various reactions among these characters is Virginia, Lane's older and much less glamorous sister, who wants to assuage her loneliness by cleaning, and winds up trashing the set with a hilarious vengeance. Carol Schultz captures the bewilderment of this character perfectly and traces her transition to an assertive, resolved woman with delicate skill.
Michael Philippi's set is spare to the point of minimalism, but it works beautifully, abetted by his own careful lighting. Lou Bird's costumes are spot on. Director Susan Gregg manages this bubbling ménage with firm finesse, keeping the pace quick and the diction elegantly clear in all three languages.
MacArthur Grant winner Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House, with a dazzling cast including Tony nominee June Gable, Jeff nominee Roni Geva and Callaway Award winner Carol Schultz, is a must-see for anyone who loves superb theater. It will run through November 11 in the Emerson Studio Theater of the Loretto-Hilton Center; for ticket information, call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.