Sunday, April 14, 2013

Cloverdale Playhouse: The Clean House

Full disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.
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Though still in her 30s, boldly imaginative playwright Sarah Ruhl is a MacArthur "genius" award winner, and her celebrated plays have been successful staples in New York and in regional theatres, everywhere it seems but Montgomery...till now...and about time.

The Cloverdale Playhouse (Your Community Theatre)  is staging Ms. Ruhl's The Clean House (2004), a play with an implausibly comic plot, a mix of fantasy and reality, linguistic gymnastics, and a study of several social issues, all handled with dexterity by director Greg Thornton and his skillful acting ensemble.

Following the triumphant showing of Cabaret in this, its second season, The Clean House marks another significant production in the Cloverdale Playhouse's challenging and highly entertaining repertoire; and, despite some tentative movement and dialogue on opening night, and a few long silences between scenes that were otherwise punctuated with clever musical choices, Mr. Thornton makes the most of his newcomers and veterans both on-stage and off by doing justice to Ms. Ruhl's quirky and provocative script, leaving the audience belly-laughing at one moment and absorbed in silence the next.

Performed on Ed Fieder's compact and evocative set (a few surprises in store), and with Eleanor K. Davis's tasteful character-driven costumes, The Clean House is a delight to the eye as well as the ear.

In a nutshell: Lane [Maureen Costello], a busy married doctor whose house and costume are an antiseptic white, has hired Brazilian Matilde (pronounced Ma-chil-gee) [Tara Fenn] as her house cleaner, and mistakenly believes that Matilde suffers from depression while mourning the death of her parents, prescribing medicine she does not take. Enter Lane's sister Virginia [Angela Dickson], a married but childless neat-freak who agrees to secretly clean the house and let Matilde alone to pursue her dream of creating the perfect joke as an homage to her parents, a joke that would kill the listener but have them die laughing. As she says: "a good joke cleans your insides."

When it is discovered that Lane's surgeon husband Charles [Stephen Dubberley] has fallen in love with Argentinian Ana [Barbara DeMichels], one of his cancer patients, and when Lane realizes that Virginia is cleaning house in Matilde's place, matters come to a head as the cohort attempt a sophisticated detente.

Replete with an opening lengthy joke by Matilde entirely in Portuguese, several dream sequences, sibling and cultural rivalries, and a trek to Alaska in search of a yew tree to cure Ana's cancer, the outrageousness of Ms. Ruhl's text attains a cohesiveness from Mr. Thornton's confident company of actors.

While individual audience members might favor one character or another, in this production of The Clean House, attention is evenly distributed among them. -- Ms. Fenn, first seen at the Cloverdale Playhouse in The Boys Next Door, demonstrates another aspect of her talents: she knows how to tell a joke in both English and Portuguese [it's all about timing, after all], and her ability to shift attention away from Matilde's reluctance to cleaning by allowing others to speak for her, engages us with an easy smile or a convincing ability to adapt to changing circumstances. She is a survivor without a doubt.

Ms. DeMichels's first Cloverdale Playhouse appearance shows an ease with Ms. Ruhl's eccentric comic elements and garners compassion for Ana's end of life wishes to die with dignity.

A veteran Montgomery actor, Mr. Dubberley inhabits Charles's complexity with apparent ease. One never doubts his having found his "Bashert" (or, soul mate) in Ana, or his unorthodox acceptance of Jewish laws and traditions (though he is not Jewish) in leaving Lane and going away with Ana. These contradictions do not seem to matter, and Mr. Dubberley exudes both a naivete and sophistication in equal measure.

Virginia and Lane are a study in opposites, performed to perfection by Ms. Dickson and Ms. Costello -- each an actor of substance and enviable credentials. And it is through them that Ms. Ruhl's serious subjects get the most attention: sibling rivalry, the sanctity of marriage, compassion for those in need, the healing of physical and psychological deep-set wounds. The rivalry between these two redheads has simmered for many years, but appears on stage in passive-aggressive spurts, full blown eruptions, and ultimate acceptance and reconciliation.

As Virginia, Ms. Dickson's attention to the smallest detail of neatness and her frustrations at self-comparison to her successful sibling give her opportunities to insinuate rather than directly commit, and to demonstrate her knowledge of some rather esoteric information learned from public broadcasting. Plus, her comic timing is admirable.

As comic timing is so much a part of this play's structure, Ms. Costello masters it in all her postures, dead-pan delivery of "zingers", and an aloofness that belies Lane's essential concern for her fellow man. And, her timing is -- wait for it -- (pause) -- impeccable.

Mr. Thornton and his cast seem to relish the gifts of Ms. Ruhl's challenging script, driving the action at a disarmingly easy pace, and allowing its surprising shifts and bizarre elements to appear quite naturally. The confidence exhibited on stage, the quality of the writing, and the artistic excellence of the company, reinforce the Cloverdale Playhouse as a destination for some of the best theatre in town.