Reviewed by Andrea Braun
We've all heard and used the phrase, "I died laughing." According to Mathilde, the Brazilian maid in The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production The Clean House
, her mother actually did. Her father told a joke, her mother laughed so hard she choked and died. Despondent, her father shot himself. But despite Mathilde's backstory, Sarah Ruhl's play is a comedy and an extraordinarily funny one, at that.
Mathilde is hired to clean for two workaholic physicians, Lane and Charles (Andrea Cirie and John Rensenhouse). She hates her job and, her life's goal is to come up with "the perfect joke." Lane's sister, Virginia, the amazing Carol Schultz loves to clean. In fact, she has defined her whole life by the fact that she keeps an extraordinarily clean house. Problem is, she finishes every day by 3 o'clock, then she has nothing else to do. So, she strikes a bargain with Mathilde: Virginia will handle her sister's housekeeping, but the conspirators will keep it a secret from Lane.
Virginia is terribly lonely and mourns the loss of a women's community that was once forged around a communal well. Later, that image will gain its full meaning. Her own sister diminishes Virginia: "I traded my whole life for people who are sick. What do you do?" In less capable hands, Virginia could turn into a cliche; as played by Schultz, she becomes the heart of the play, a role that most likely should belong to the exotic Ana (June Gable) who wins Charles' heart when he performs her mastectomy.
Gable and Rensenhouse also play Mathilde's parents in flashbacks, and they seem more believable in pantomime than they do as the lovers, Charles and Ana. Ana is older than Charles, 64 to be precise, and her looks are unconventional, yet she is described as "beautiful" by Virginia when Ana and Charles come to see Lane. Ana isn't just in love, she is love. She is Charles' "bashert," his soul mate. She reminded me a lot of the late Nancy Walker, a tiny, redhaired dynamo who almost makes us believe she is all that. But just almost.
Everyone in the cast does fine work. Roni Geva as the young Mathilde serves as narrator and expresses the philosophical underpinnings of the play. Lane is a gorgeous woman whose crisp white clothing matches her soulless white living room. She and Virginia are polar opposites, but they are still believable as sisters because of their interplay. Rensenhouse is ridiculous as Charles, but he is supposed to be, as he has become a fool for love. Among the actors, I didn't notice so much as a hesitation or single faux pas in timing. In fact, Mathilde has a terrific joke on timing-listen for it.
The play itself is absurd, but in a good way. The audience can accept the conceit that is central to the story since the characters believe it. For example, if they can believe discarded "bad apples" can fall from Ana's balcony into Lane's living room, we do. The conventions of time and space mean little in this world. Jokes abound here, constructed and off the cuff. Each character is comic in her or his own way, and nothing is sacred. Life and death, love and hurt, anger and forgiveness, pain and pleasure-all are treated with a light hand. It's as if Ruhl is reminding us that we are each actors in the human comedy, and we should enjoy it because it will all be over too soon.
Susan Gregg's direction is impeccable, sharp and focused. The show is delightfully paced. My only quibble is that the first act is quite short, so just when we're settling in with our new acquaintances, it's time for a bathroom break. Michael Philippi's set and lights make the best possible use of the confines of the Rep's Emerson Studio Theatre. Tori Meyer makes sure we hear every word clearly. Technically, The Clean House
is a remarkable achievement, and artistically, the best show to date of the Rep's three-stage season.
For tickets, contact The Rep box office, 314-968-4925 or go online at www.repstl.org