Lights open on a set that is blindingly white, revealing white furniture, white couch, white carpet and white walls. It’s the same set that has been used endlessly in overdone clichd plays, and is usually not a sign of good things to come. But before you grimace and attempt to get your money back, give ‘The Clean House,” which played at Geva Theatre, a chance. It’s poignant, realistic in its storyline, surreal in its execution and funnier and more entertaining than anything I’ve seen in years.

The play is about four women, and how their lives have been intertwined, but it centers around a Brazilian cleaning woman named Matilda, played by Tania Santiago, who is searching for the perfect joke. Both her parents were comedic geniuses and are recently deceased.

Her mother ‘died laughing,” and she fears, even as she searches for the perfect joke, that if she finds it, it will kill her. Her poignant moments imagining her parents are heartbreaking, and yet not so tragic that she detracts from the other characters. Initially she seems to be the only character that’s even remotely complex but early assumptions are often wrong, and that is certainly true for this play. The cheating husband, played by Tuck Milligan, is charming and leaves his beautiful, poised and successful wife for an older woman. He’s hopelessly romantic, going so far as to trek to Alaska to cut down a tree for his new lover.

The first wife, Lane, played Anne-Marie Cusson, is initially unappealing, unsympathetic and an overall annoyance, even to the audience. Her lack of charm throughout most of the first act may detract from the beauty of the play a tad, but Cusson more than makes up for it in the second act, when she suddenly reveals her true depth and breadth of human emotion.

Her sister, Virginia, is sweet and perhaps the most humorous character in the play, despite the implication that the amusement should stem largely from Matilda. She cares deeply for her sister, and only wants to help even when she doesn’t quite know how.
And then there is Ana, the ‘other woman.” As an audience member, I wasn’t sure who or what I was expecting from her, but it most certainly wasn’t what I got. Ana, played by Judith Delgado, it delightful, wise enough to accept tragedy and playful enough to not allow it to rule her life. Ana is strong, beautiful and completely full of life, despite unfortunate circumstances, and Delgado plays her role skillfully. She is a pleasure to watch onstage. And that’s it.

This entire show is done with only five cast members. And yet, ‘The Clean House” is most certainly not a ‘simple” play. There are quite a few effects that are surprising and entertaining at one point Charles sings ‘Just the Way You Look Tonight” to Ana in glittering scrubs as a disco ball reflects light all around the auditorium. At times it’s dramatic to the point of spectacle at one point Virginia trashes the beautifully clean living room, in a moment that is amusing and yet deeply symbolic of the play as a whole.
There is a recurring theme of cleaning in this play, as the title might suggest: Not everything in life is spotless and you can not simply sweep problems away, under the rug, hidden from view. Life is messy and the cleaner you try to make it, the more obvious the dirt is.

Howard is a member of
the class of 2012.

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