BWW Review: Portland Stage Opens Season with THE CLEAN HOUSE
The cast of characters in Sarah Ruhl's THE CLEAN HOUSE, which opens the 2019-2020 Portland Stage season, leads anything but tidy lives. The 2004 play, which received its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is a metaphorically absurdist exploration of neuroses, obsessions, and the quest for laughter and love. The drama which employs a kind of "magical realism" brings together five quirky characters who only find their humanity as their neat little lives unravel and they allow chaos, passion, empathy, laughter, and tears to fill their souls.
Ruhl's premise is an interesting one, and her characters are just bizarre enough to hold audience interest, but her dialogue is sometimes stilted and her use of symbolism often overly obvious. The second act engages the viewer far more than the first, as the characters transform themselves from stereotypes to flesh and blood human beings, and the final scene is ultimately touching and redemptive.
Cait Robinson directs with a steady hand and an appropriate sense of whimsy, integrating smoothly the imagined sequences with the quotidian reality. Bryce Cutler's (David Tousely, assistant) massive, all-white-on-white scenery sets the perfect tone for the initially sterile environment of Lane and Charles' home, which eventually, transforms itself into a kind of luminescent purity, as the walls open to embrace the balcony and sea of Ana and Charles' abode. Stephen Jones' lighting complements the cool emotional palette, gradually adding touches of color and warmth. Emily White uses a symbolic palette of color for her costumes - white for Lane, black for the fiery Matilde, warm rich florals and colors for the passionate Ana. David Remedios' sound design and underscoring music choices add to the poetic realism of the piece, while Myles C. Hatch serves as the able Stage Manager.
Abigail Killeen plays an icy Lane, whose professional exterior slowly crumbles as her perfect suburban life dissolves. Rob Cameron invests her errant husband Charles with a blend of nerdy passion that borders on its own obsessiveness, while Tod Randolph's Virginia hides a host of suppressed feelings beneath her manic fervor for housekeeping. The strongest performances come from Jennifer Paredes as the reluctant Brazilian maid Matilde and from Michelle Rios as the doomed and loving Ana. Paredes captures perfectly the sassy, upstart quality of Matilde, who serves the play as a kind of Greek chorus, seeking the perfect joke, which ultimately proves to be the laughter intertwined with tears. Rios is warm and touching without being maudlin, and she brings a lovely dignity and poetry to the role that is the emotional heart of the play.
At one point, Matilde says "The perfect joke is not made up by one person." It is her acknowledgement - and tacitly that of the other characters, as well - that the essence of being human is interconnectedness - however, absurd or unlikely those intersecting journeys may seem.
Photo courtesy of Portland Stage, Aaron Flacke, photographer
THE CLEAN HOUSE runs from September 24- October 13, 2019 at Portland Stage, 25 A Forest Ave., Portland, ME 207-774-0465 www.portlandstage.org