A doctor, a housewife, a maid who would rather tell jokes than clean, a cancer patient and a cheating husband all inhabit the clever imagination of playwright Sarah Ruhl, who unites the disparate characters with impressive thematic cohesion in her Pulitzer-nominated play The Clean House, now at Actors Guild of Lexington.
The play's synopsis sounds wacky: a Brazilian maid who would rather write the perfect joke becomes friends with the cleaning-obsessed sister of her boss, Lane, a doctor who appears to have the perfect life: a modern home, a thriving career and marriage to a surgeon. But Lane's world crashes when her husband falls in love with an Argentine cancer patient.
If it sounds as if there is a lot going on in this play, there is, but Ruhl's writing is refreshingly lean. Her unusual plot unfolds elegantly, with surprising twists that underscore themes of class division, relationships among women, the nature of love and the power of laughter.
Director Eric Seale develops these themes with a kind of buoyant solemnity, or solemn buoyancy, depending on the scene, in keeping with Ruhl's message that the brightest and darkest aspects of life, laughter and death are not so separate.
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The play doesn't have a traditional "lead" role, but it is the maid, Matilde, who forms the social glue that bonds the other characters. Surayah Shalash is impeccably cast in this role. She dynamically embodies Matilde's almost spiritual commitment to laughter; and even though she tells jokes in another language, we don't need to know what she is saying to feel the warmth and humor.
Missy Johnston is a breath of fresh air as Ana, the beautiful mistress to Lane's husband, Charles (Mark Callahan). When Charles reveals his affair to Lane, he is unapologetic and says Ana is his "beshert," a Yiddish word for a soul mate. The confession of the affair and the resulting emotional complexities are handled with frank sophistication. Everyone still loves and needs everyone else.
Kimberly Burris and Cherie Kiesler deliver enthusiastic performances as Lane and her sister Virginia, but they should develop their characters more. Ruhl has given them ripe material, and allowing the audience to experience more of their conflict would strengthen the show. A moment when unappreciated housewife Virginia cries because Matilde says "thank you" is moving, but such moments can be mined for even more emotion.
Like Matilde, who breaks tension by asking if anyone would like to hear a joke, Ruhl's play oscillates back to the light side after dwelling on the dark, or somehow concocts a marriage of the two.
Take the opening of Act II, when Charles is operating on Ana; the scene is elaborately pantomimed to opera. Somehow, this is hilarious, despite the scenario's brutal truth: that someone is fighting death. It's an echo of something Ruhl said in The New Yorker: "Everyone has a great, horrible opera inside him."