South Bend Civic's 'The Clean House' Shines

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.

The Clean House South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreIf 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 Clean House  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThe 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 Clean House South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThe 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

Sondheim Classic Looks At Marriage

In the world of musical theater, composer Stephen Sondheim is generally acknowledged as its greatest living exponent.  His works are not easy to produce, yet seem to bring out the very best in the singer/actors who sign on to give life to his many multi-layered characters.

The latest local theater group to take up the challenge of Sondheim is Elkhart Civic Theatre which opened its production of “Company” Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House.

Company  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol  INProduced first in 1970, with award-winning “updated” revivals in 1995 and 2006, “Company” was the first of Sondheim’s musicals (seven of them Tony Award-winners) to hit the Broadway stage. In keeping with the composer/lyricist’s penchant for off-beat plots and story lines, it is best described as a “concept musical.” Don’t expect a beginning/middle/end to this tale of bachelor Bobby, 35, and the five couples (and several single girlfriends) who can’t resist the urge to propel him towards matrimony.

Based on 11 one-act plays by George Furth, who wrote the book for “Company,” it goes inside the relationships of Bobby’s “married friends,” while he plays interested observer. Each pair has problems of its own. Each manages to deal with them in its own way, all the while encouraging Bobby to take a leap of faith and find out what he’s missing.

Some of Sondheim’s loveliest melodies heighten the score of “Company,” as well as some of his sharpest lyrics. If I had any complaint about Friday’s performance it is that the excellent soloists who were razor-sharp on those lyrics, frequently were obscured by the rather harsh piano.

Company  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol  INThe “through line” in ”Company” is Bobby, who interacts with — and eventually reacts to — his friends. He has three of the show’s biggest and most demanding solos, the best known of which is “Being Alive.” It is a difficult role, dramatically and vocally, and the ECT production is more than fortunate to have it safely in the hands and voice of Jacob Medich. He walks the fine line between observer and participant with charm and his rich baritone is unfailingly up to the lyrical task.

Probably the most familiar solo in “Company” is “The Ladies Who Lunch,” a brilliant chastisement of women possibly more appropriate to those in the show’s original 1970’s time frame than to those of today. It is delivered with power and acid accuracy by Susan South as the jaded Joanne, who also gleefully shatters marital myths with “The Little Things You Do Together.”

Each of the couples has its own method of dealing with the intricacies of married life including, in one case, divorce. Portraying the diverse duos are Stephanie Yoder and Patrick Farren as addictive combatants Sarah and Harry; Stephanie Honderich and Sean Leyes as experimental tokers Jenny and David; Natalie MacRae and Brock Butler as happily uncoupled Susan and Peter; Kristen Riggs and Joe Beauregard as maybe-married Amy and Paul; and John Shoup as Larry, Joanne’s tolerant spouse.

The three young ladies with excellent voices and seemingly endless patience are Bobby’s girlfriends — Sarah Rogers as Marta, Mandie Mickelson as Kathy and Rachel Raska as April. Each provides her own insight into the frustrating search for a willing bachelor.

Sondheim’s score features marvelously intricate ensemble numbers, difficult to sing and, in lesser productions, frequently even more difficult to hear. From the opening title song to the extended “Side by Side by Side” which begins the second act, these voices fuse well and the overall blend is just right.

Company  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol  INAs always, much of the pleasure of Sondheim lies in the lyrics. Listen carefully to “Sorry-Grateful,” “You Could Drive A Person Crazy,” “Poor Baby” and “Getting Married Today” and find the truth behind the beautifully-crafted words. The last, especially as done by Riggs, is frantically, hilariously poignant and relates to many altar-bound singles..

“Company” is directed sharply by Stephanie J. Salisbury, assisted by Stephen M. Salisbury, a couple who obviously has found the secret to working together successfully. Heidi Ferris handled the formidable task of vocal and music directing with well-crafted choreography and movement created by Jerry O’Boyle.

Scenic artist Jeffrey Barrick recreated the large abstract painting of New York City, a location which plays an important part in the action, with Shoup serving as scenic designer.  The few off notes were in the costuming (Bobby’s diamond-design sweater), the unfortunately intrusive changing of set pieces, and the jarring Miley Cyrus “wrecking ball” reference which was not even close Sondheim.

“Company” is classic Sondheim and the ECT production provides the opportunity to enjoy one of the gems of the modern American musical theater.

“COMPANY” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and March 21, 22 and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House, 210 E. Vistla St. in Bristol.  For reservations, call 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays or visit www.elkhartcivictheatre.org.