Jayne Houdyshell and Abigail López in The Clean House(Photo © Jim Roese)
Jayne Houdyshell and Abigail López in The Clean House
(Photo © Jim Roese)
The Wilma Theater is not exactly known as a hot-spot for uplifting, life-affirming theater. Nor do co-artistic directors Jiri and Blanka Zizka typically turn the reins over to a guest director. However that is exactly what they have done with their production of Sarah Ruhl's wonderful play The Clean House, led by director Daniel Fish. What makes this production such an enriching experience isn't just the considerable empathy that Ruhl shows her characters but the fact that it introduces Philadelphia to both a splendid new American playwright and one of the country's most exciting directors.

Ruhl's warm-hearted comedy revolves around Lane (Lizbeth Mackay), a doctor who can't stand to clean her own house. Unfortunately for the busy doctor, her Brazilian cleaning lady Matilde's (Abigail López) attitude towards dirt is as follows: "If the floor is dirty, look at the ceiling." In an effort to make her already tidy, logical life entirely spotless, Lane sends the depressed Matilde to a psychiatrist. Zoloft doesn't help but Lane's sister Virginia (Jayne Houdyshell), an unhappy woman obsessed with cleanliness and orderliness, wants to secretly take over the cleaning lady's job. Matilde, who dreams of being a comedienne, agrees. As she watches Virginia efficiently scrub and sweep every inch of Lane's home, she uses her free time to craft the "perfect joke" -- a joke so funny that it will literally cause you to laugh yourself to death. Eventually, Lane discovers the women's deception. Even more upsetting is the revelation that her husband Charles (Gerry Bamman) has left her for an older, life-embracing woman named Ana (Judith Anna Roberts).

If this sounds like the plot of a bizarre soap opera, it doesn't play that way. Rather, the wildly talented Fish emphasizes the play's visual imagery, represented magnificently in Andrew Lieberman's sparkling set, highlighted by three long rows of side-by-side washer/dryers and a gleaming white rug. As Lane's once methodical life becomes increasingly messy with incidents of jealousy, anger, disease, compassion, and forgiveness, Lieberman's antiseptic set is soon cluttered with silverware, dirt, snow, broken objects, an Alaskan tree, and a dead body. In the production's most striking image, Lane, Virginia, Matilde, and Ana sit in the doctor's now chaotic living room. After years of insulating herself from all the pain and joy of the world outside, life has finally penetrated the well-defended walls of Lane's home; all of the old fears and aspirations that Lane kept sweeping under the rug have literally exploded across her living room floor.

The issues are deftly explored by Fish and his excellent five-member cast. As Lane, Mackay does wonders with the play's most unsympathetic character. Houdyshell gives an immensely entertaining performance as Virginia, who, though opposite in personality from Lane, has a similar desire to maintain order in her life. Ruhl's writing has an engaging sense of freedom to it. She never restricts her female characters, with the result that they are both unpredictable and entirely genuine. She's not as successful with House's lone male character, but the play's notion that humor can cleanse the soul is well expressed.

This has been a breakout year for Ruhl. The Clean House (her sixth play) won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for Best Play Written in English by a Female Playwright -- an award whose previous recipients include such notables as Paula Vogel, Caryl Churchill, and Wendy Wasserstein. The prestigious Berkeley Repertory Theatre produced her play Eurydice in September, and the 2004-2005 season will see four separate productions of The Clean House. All of the attention is well justified; few playwrights can mix poignant realism with profound flights of fantasy so effectively. Judging from House's multiple layers and consistently intriguing characters, Ruhl is clearly a unique and gifted young voice in American theater.