The Clean House
By Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
“This is NOT a foreign film!”
When the Yiddish word “bashert“ is introduced into this play by Sarah Ruhl, “The Clean House,” in the second act, everything changes. Everyone changes as well. It comes not as a surprise but as a shock. It turns an awkward, nearly ugly moment into something quite different and the play, a strangely sprightly comedy with a dark side, into a drama of romantic torment, enlightenment and magic. Amazing what a single word can do, a single commentary, a single concept.
Sarah Ruhl wrote one of my favorite plays, which may prove to be too difficult to do in summer theaters: “In the Next Room: The Vibrator Play.” Its use of magical realism was spectacular and, I thought, unsurpassable. In this production of another of her plays at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, magical realism rears its magnificent head and leaves the audience stunned by its beauty, fascinated by its impact. Although I’d already selected my favorite play of the year, Ruhl’s play in its Rebecca Taichman production is shoving aside other considerations –and it’s only mid-season. Taichman’s production of the play “Indecent” on Broadway this past season proved to be my favorite show in New York and its Tony Award was so well deserved.
Add to the fabulous mix of playwright and director a stellar cast consisting of Jayne Atkinson, Jessica Hecht, Guenia Lemos, Priscilla Lopez and Bernard White, and throw in the technical beauty of Riccardo Hernandez’s set, Ben Stanton’s lighting, Andre Pluess’ sound and costumes by Anita Yavich, and the end result is a play that is definitely not to be missed.
For the 1950s musical “The King and I,” Oscar Hammerstein II wrote a lyric that sings “you fly down the street/on the chance that you’ll meet/and you meet, not really by chance.” So it is for the people in this play. Virginia (Hecht) meets Matilde (Lemos) and magic happens, as it must when yin and yang collide over the concept of housecleaning. Charles (White) and Ana (Lopez) meet over breast cancer and suddenly little else matters but Ana and Charles. Lane (Atkinson) meets no one, for she is interested in no one but Lane and, even so, the miracle of new relationship occurs for her. Magical realism concerns itself with transformational concepts and, in this play, they happen all the time – sometimes in a grand and beautiful manner, sometimes in a small shift of attitude.
Don’t be misled by all this grandiose thought. This is a play about love, loyalty, the prescience of humor and the value of a good joke. It is about laughter and about tears, about hopes and about fears, about accumulated dreams over accumulated years. It deals equally with life and with death and the ramifications of both. It is as though some unseen Tinker Bell has sifted a bag of fairy dust over us all and transformed subtly our ability to soar.
Newcomer Guenia Lemos plays Matilde, a Brazilian child of loving jokesters brought together and killed by laughter. An actress of power and beauty, she regales us with jokes in Brazilian Portuguese and makes us laugh without knowing a word of the language. She plays a woman with goals who cannot express them but who makes them obvious to everyone. Matilde (pronounced Ma-chool-gee) is the distributor of loving fairy dust who should clean it up but is reluctant to do so. Her need for affection and a good listener inspires Hecht’s Virginia and the relationship they build is absolutely honest and ever so touching.
Hecht could be the star of this production but her role is a secondary one, no matter how much we come to love her, almost from the outset. This actress has the ability to change the mood and motion of a sentence mid-word without allowing that change to feel acted or artificial. She is a natural for this role – Virginia – the discontented malcontent content with her life, or so she says. She has a wonderful way of moving, converting a natural grace into an equally natural awkwardness. Of the four women, she is the most compelling most of the time and it is her ability to make the role seem real and happening that gives the play its ground floor, its base.
Priscilla Lopez is the intruder, Ana, whose understanding of “bashert“ creates the changes in the play. The word technically, rabbinically, means “from God or the consequence of divine intervention” though, in this play, it is described as “soulmate.” Ana, a beautiful older woman, brings this quality into the life of doctor Charles, who is married to Lane. He has no desire for another woman, but Ana alters his perception of life almost instantly and he does the same for her. Lopez is lovely in this role, bringing a bizarre simplicity into the most radical of ideas. She does this with physical grace and amazing poise. She is as delightful a companion for us, the audience, as she is for Charles.
Bernard White is a romantic Charles. As he falls under Ana’s spell, he exudes his own, casting her into a net from which she cannot escape. Physically he manages to wrap all the women into a spell he has no idea he can cast. Watching this actor work through this process is like standing outside an old-fashioned pizza parlor watching the baker through the window as he expands his dough with lusty thrusts of two fists into the descending disc of dough. You are fascinated, mesmerized by his technique and his talent. It is as though there is nothing else to see.
Changes come slowly, almost furtively, to Lane and she battles with each of them in turn. This is a woman easily thwarted but never seduced or reduced in any way from the perfect champion of a woman that she is. Jayne Atkinson makes the most benign collection of words in a sentence into something outrageously funny or equally oddly moving. She starts out stiff and officious but, by the end of the play, she has softened enough to accept the realities of her life without grimace, tears or scotch on the rocks. Atkinson leaves herself out of the mix here, playing a role that is everything she has ever done and something she has never become before. Her version of Lane is simply this: a woman who cannot undo herself even when she tries to do so, and who cannot remain herself even as she attempts to do just that. The main character in any good play needs to make a transition, to move from point A to point B somehow. Though her Lane seems incapable of achieving this, it is the play’s magical realism that takes Atkinson by the hand and guides her through Lane’s reticence. I loved watching the gradations of change, small and sometimes temporary. I loved hearing her dark tones as she accepted herself for who she is. Lane is truly alive in Atkinson’s performance, nuanced and subtle and strong.
The magical realism of Ruhl’s fine play is almost a warning to the audience: We are alerted to the possibilities of what the world holds in store for us. Atkinson is the toughest symbol of this concept and Hecht is the easiest. Matilde’s need for the perfect joke is the posted landmark for the journey these people make in the quest for the most real things in their worlds. They take a journey that is so very worth the making. I’d make it again with these folks. Any day.
The Clean House plays at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, Massachusetts, through Saturday, July 29. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 458-3253 or go online to wtfestival.org.