There are times in theater when it all comes together; when script, cast, director, set, costumes, lights, etc. combine to create what is a perfect — or nearly perfect — production.
These times are few and far between —and even fewer and farther in what is somewhat condescendingly referred to as an “amateur production.” There is, however, nothing remotely amateur in any area about the current South Bend Civic Theatre production of Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House,” on stage through March 23 in the Warner Studio Theatre.
It is extremely difficult to slip this play, a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist, into a single category. It is full of humor and heart-wrenching drama, a love story on many levels and definitely a compendium of complex relationships, with emotions and situations that change in the flick of a dust cloth or a punch line.
If the situations seem at first distorted and characters more at home in a theater of the absurd, wait…but not for long. Within a few pages of dialogue or a few scenes, everything seems to be absolutely as it should be.
It certainly helps that director Jim Geisel has collected the perfect quintet of players, and that he has led them through Ruhl’s whimsical exercise of love, loss and house cleaning with a deft touch.
At the center of the house — set in “a metaphysical Connecticut“— is Matilde, a Brazilian girl imported by married doctors Charles and Lane as a housekeeper. The only problem is, Matilde would rather make up jokes than clean. Lane’s sister Virginia, however, loves to clean. She offers to clean the house, allowing Mathilde time to work on her perfect joke.
Needless to say, Lane is not happy with this arrangement. But it is the least of her worries when Charles announces he has fallen instantly in love with a patient, an older woman with cancer on whom he has performed a mastectomy, and he is leaving.
The ensemble cast works seamlessly together, allowing the flow of the dialogue and the shifting positions of the characters to happen naturally. This is no easy job for Matilde. As played by the very talented April Sellers, she is the catalyst and the solution and delivers the jokes — in Portugese (the language of Brazil) — so easily it is difficult to believe that she is not a native.
The sisters, played by Lucinda Moriarty as Lane and Mary Ann Moran as Virginia, are as unlike — and as alike — as many siblings. They are by turn combative and supportive and, like Sellers, give their characters real depth beneath the frequently abrupt dialogue.
Bill Svelmoe, a veteran of many shows this year, delivers a wonderfully empathetic Charles. He tries valiantly to make his wife understand his instant and irrevocable connection with Ana and, in the end, goes on a seemingly ridiculous quest for a cure. Marybeth Saunders makes a lovely Ana, who understands everyone’s emotions — and Mathilde’s language — and has the strength to deal with the inevitable in her own way
The twists and turns in this house, seemingly outrageous at times and then seem so obviously right that you are drawn into their orbit. The cast gives special thanks to Ana Maria Goulet for her assistance with the language which definitely sounds as if they all knew what they were saying.
The action, which moves in several locations, is played on a basic all-white set with all-white furniture and a sometimes-moonlit balcony upstage center. David Chudzynski’s set design is elegantly graceful and completely functional and whatever it is supposed to be. The shifting actions — and emotions — are underscored and heightened by Lloyd Whitmer’s lighting design. The costuming is appropriate to the characters and situations.
This is a “don’t miss” production and seating is definitely limited. You may not die laughing, as Mathilde is certain her parents did, but you will admit that it could happen — and it’s a lovely way to go.
THE CLEAN HOUSE plays at 7:30 (yes, 7:30) p.m. today through Saturday and March 19-22 and 2 p.m. March 16 in the Warner Studio Theatre at 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.or