It’s a bold move for a play to begin with a joke told in Portuguese and offer no translation to the audience. But that’s just what The Clean House, currently playing at Contemporary Theatre Company, does. The play is a whimsical journey through fantasy and reality, love and loss, class and gender. The audience begins slightly confused by a joke, and rides that off-kilter feeling through the rest of this charming production.
Matilde is a Brazilian immigrant who has been hired to clean Lane’s house. The problem is that Matilde loves to tell jokes, but hates cleaning. Cleaning has made her sad, and she can no longer come up with jokes. She declares that she was the third funniest person in Brazil, but it’s hard to see the laughter in Emily Rodriguez’s version of the character. Her Matilde is quiet and unassuming. Her movements are graceful and fluid, almost birdlike. We often see her playing with the dirt beds along the edges of the stage, but expect her to fly away at any moment.
She is an excellent foil to Lane, the perfect doctor. She knows she is the perfect doctor, wearing a white pantsuit to emphasize her perfection. Lane is fast-paced and solidly grounded. She is sure of herself. She speaks firmly and directly. Stephanie Traversa is nowhere near the 50-something woman described in the script, but she is superb in scenes where she can play up Lane’s strength. However, in scenes where Lane needs to be more emotionally vulnerable, Traversa falls a little flat. Of all the characters in The Clean House, Lane has a considerable emotional journey, but Traversa does not always succeed in showing us the connections and turns and changes. When she finds out her husband (also a doctor) has run off with one of his patients, she sits on the couch and cries herself into laughter. Traversa plays this scene with understated emotion when the scene feels like it needs more and bigger and louder. Traversa is the best in her delivery of one-liners, often drawing the biggest laughs from the audience with her timing and delivery. She’s excellent with the comedy.
The only character who actually cleans the house is Virginia, Lane’s sister. Paula Faber is an adorably neurotic housewife whose purpose in life is to clean. Terry Shea plays Charles, Lane’s husband who leaves her for Ana. He is child-like and naïve, and we wonder how he ever managed to have an affair behind Lane’s back. Ana is the charismatic mastectomy patient who steals Charles’ heart. She is played by Nancy Winokoor to perfection. Shea and Winokoor are hilarious together, bringing us one of the most delightful moments of the play when they act out the story of how they fell in love over Ana’s cancer diagnosis. The entire cast is enchanting.
Contemporary Theatre Company has chosen to run The Clean House and Dirt on alternating weekends, using the same set. The actors work on a small square of brilliant white floor, surrounded on all four sides by beds of dirt. The same paint-splattered stairs ascend to a balcony, overlooking the playing area below. It’s a brilliant idea to have two very different shows use the same set, and it made for some very creative choices for this production of The Clean House. For instance, Matilde is often found playing in the dirt, emphasizing her playfulness and joyful exploration of the world. When Virginia has a breakdown and makes a giant mess in the living room, the dirt is used to great advantage.
The set also cramps the actors in a way that prohibits connection. A pivotal emotional moment between the women centers around sharing ice cream on the couch. The set is too small to accommodate a full-length couch so two women are seated on the short loveseat, one is on the floor, and one hovers awkwardly to the side. Thanks to the set, a cozy moment of sisterhood becomes slightly awkward and disconnected. Virginia’s messy breakdown is stunted because there is no room for extra things on the set. Virginia grabs a magazine and throws it to the ground, when we want to see breaking glass. The fistfuls of dirt that are thrown are carefully choreographed to comical effect, but leave us wanting the real mess of a lived-in house.
Tammy Brown has directed an engaging show, paying careful attention to the language in the script. She allows the words to do the heavy lifting, providing the audience with a lovely story about love and loss and sisterhood. It is a simple production that allows the audience to fall in love with every character on the stage.
The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl runs in rep with Dirt by Bryony Lavery through May 19 at Contemporary Theater Company at 327 Main Street in Wakefield. You can purchase tickets at contemporarytheatercompany.com or by calling the box office at 401-218-0282.