Feature : Theater : 1.15.2009


Heavy Loads
Controlling follies at the Leebrick
by Suzi Steffen

Matilde (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason, on sofa) and Virgina (Laura Robinson-Thomas). Photo: Gretchen Drew

People with a lot of stuff can go to extremes. At one end is Garbage Tunnel Man, an English guy who died a few weeks ago from dehydration. Apparently, he got lost in the “intricate” tunnels of garbage that filled his home, and he paid the ultimate price beneath his own waste. Then there’s Fly Lady (yes, a real website/person). Fly Lady will not die in a garbage tunnel. When she dies, her hair will be “fixed,” as will her face. And damn, will her sink be shiny.

Between those two poles lies the suburban Connecticut house of Lane. You can see Lane’s cool, impersonal living room at the Lord Leebrick Theatre’s production of The Clean House. In his curtain speech, Leebrick Artistic Director Craig Willis called Sarah Ruhl’s 2004 work “probably the most produced play in the U.S. in the past 18 months.” After all, most of us know something about making messes and cleaning them up. Cleaning, or living in a clean space, makes us feel in control of our fates. But there are messes beyond anyone’s control. That is where things get interesting.

Lane (Lyn Burg) and her husband Charles (Paul Calandrino) have a young, depressed live-in cleaning woman from Brazil named Matilde (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason). Matilde doesn’t want to clean; she wants to make it as a comedian in New York. Slaughter-Mason powerfully opens the play, spotlight firmly focused on her. When she’s alone on stage, Slaughter-Mason shines. Yet her interactions with Burg as Lane and Laura Robinson-Thomas as Lane’s Fly Lady-ish sister Virginia lack generosity and chemistry, which is a shame since much of the pre-intermission show involves these three characters.

The best moments of that first part (much shorter than the post-intermission section of the play) come from Matilde’s jokes, mostly told in Portuguese, and Matilde’s recreations of her parents’ lives. As she speaks of them, her parents, played by Calandrino and Ellen Chace, enter the stage to create silent but emotionally moving tableaux. 

Calandrino morphs into Charles, and Chace changes into Ana, Charles’ extramarital love interest. Chace’s lively, thoughtful acting along with her character’s warmth and grace give the second act shape, but some themes from the first act drift away in the face of the Charles-Ana love story.

Cleaning depresses the black-clad Matilde, makes Virginia feel powerful, annoys the white-clothing-obsessed Lane (who wants someone else dealing with her messes) and bores the colorful Ana. How does Charles feel about cleaning? That’s something the script never really tells us. Ruhl sends her male character off on an absurd quest (one that the script makes far too literal) while the women take care of messy business and emotions. The second act wouldn’t make sense without the first, but it’s far stronger and builds to its poignant/ridiculous final moments. The play, as director John Schmor says, is indeed funny with a dark edge. After all, confronted with the dirt, blood and fleshly dust of life, what can we do but clean a little, drink a little, cry and laugh?

Clean House continues through Jan. 31 at the Lord Leebrick Theatre. Tix at www.lordleebrick.com or 465-1506.