The Clean House

Photo of Romi Dias as Matilde
Romi Dias as Matilde
Photo: Terry Shapiro
In a society obsessed by appearances, spiritual truths are subversive. Yet creating art that can break through the façade of materialism and get people to step outside of their superficial existence is a rare event. When it happens, though, the power of the experience is such that the wait seems a small price.

Such is the transformative power of Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House. Exhibiting wisdom far beyond her 31 years, Ruhl wields the power of magical realism like a brain surgeon with a laser scalpel, cutting to the crux of the matter without an iota of unnecessary effort.

From the beginning of the Denver Center Theatre Company's production, director Wendy Goldberg makes all the right choices, illuminating Ruhl's inspired work with brilliant images. When Alexander Dodge's stunning post-modern set is suddenly populated by Romi Dias as Matilde, a down-to-earth Brazilian cleaning lady, the contrast between her animated storytelling and the cold yet elegant, museum-like atmosphere of the apartment where she works couldn't be starker. That the joke Dias is telling us is entirely in Portuguese hardly matters: her warm-blooded enthusiasm reassures us that amidst all the lifeless black, white, gray, and beige glass, steel, and stone, an impassioned heart still pumps red corpuscles.

Though Matilde is still mourning the death of her parents, the funniest people in Brazil, and can't bring herself to do her job, her quest to follow in their footsteps and create the perfect joke is compelling, and Dias effortlessly penetrates our European defenses and engages us in Matilde's noble Latin cause.

Photo of (L to R) Caitlin O’Connell as Lane, Romi Dias as Matilde and Charlotte Booker as Virginia
(L to R) Caitlin O’Connell as Lane,
Romi Dias as Matilde, and
Charlotte Booker as Virginia
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Nevertheless, Matilde's employer, Lane, wants her apartment clean, and is exasperated at her maid's refusal to do her job. To Lane, externalities command attention in a way that internalities do not, and it is upon her that the moral forces in Ruhl's story primarily come to bear.

Caitlin O'Connell's Lane begins her journey as a strong, successful doctor, sure that the values she imposes on the world are as unquestionable as her success, and in such self-assuredness we see little reason to believe that Lane would ever think otherwise. But both Ruhl and O'Connell surprise us. Dreams, memories, and events begin to interact with everyday routines, and Lane is forced to question her assumptions about the nature of success and fulfillment. As Ruhl begins to dovetail non-sequential occurences from the fabric of space-time, O'Connell reveals the effects of these confluences in the details of her performance, delivering a transformation that would otherwise be difficult to grasp or believe.

Photo of Charlotte Booker as Virginia
Charlotte Booker as Virginia
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Along the way Ruhl employs a number of characters to inform the action and philosophic issues at stake. Virginia, Lane's sister, can't believe anyone would give up the privilege of cleaning their own house, setting up the central metaphor between spiritual and material housecleaning. Charlotte Booker's Virginia is high-strung and highly educated like her sister, yet provides an insight into the compulsiveness that Lane hides underneath her success. Booker's effusive delivery is a humorous contrast to Dias' deadpanned velvet hammer.

Photo of Jamie Horton as Charles and Judith Delgado as Ana
Jamie Horton as Charles
and Judith Delgado as Ana
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Lane's husband Charles is a successful doctor as well, yet in the process of operating on a patient, he meets his soulmate, or bashert, as it is know in Jewish law, and opens his heart to possibilities he hadn't even dreamed. Not many non-Jewish husbands, or actors for that matter, would have the chutzpah to approach their wife over such a matter, let alone bring their new flame with them, but with the tragi-comic finesse of a concert musician Jamie Horton finds the melody in an awkward situation and makes it the turning point of the story, presenting Ana to Lane.

Forced to keep her composure in front of her rival as well as to maintain her professional self-concept, Lane journeys inward to a desolate place. There, upon discovering that Ana needs her care, she taps into the compassion that was once at the heart of the medical profession, healing herself in the process.

Photo of (L to R) Romi Dias as Matilde and Judith Delgado as Ana
(L to R) Romi Dias as Matilde
and Judith Delgado as Ana
Photo: Terry Shapiro
In Ana, Ruhl builds on the magical premises she establishes with Matilde, drawing her as an earth-mother and spiritual catalyst that transforms everyone's life through her natural, no-frills approach. Once more, the playwright's tall order is fulfilled, as Judith Delgado exudes the natural wisdom, joie de vivre, and heart that fulfills Matilde's perfect joke.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House runs through April 22nd. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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