A woman with a spreading illness sits on a balcony, tasting apples by the sea. A younger friend sits with her, warm and afraid at the same time. The younger woman has recently lost her parents, and she remembers them alive and in love.
“They laugh until laughing makes them kiss,” she once said. “They kiss until kissing makes them laugh.”
Now she throws a bitten apple, and it lands in an empty room.
Her story lives in a place between life and death, and it blends magic and reality, like a tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Passion blends with loneliness and the vital force in a good joke — in Sarah Ruhl’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist, “The Clean House,” coming to the Mainstage at Williamstown Theatre festival through July 29.
The story begins with Matilde, a young woman from Brazil who wants to find or create the perfect joke. Her parents taught her laughter, and without them she is trying to support herself on her own.
She has come to “a metaphysical Connecticut,” Ruhl writes in her directions, and here Lane, a doctor in her 50s, hires Matilde to clean her house. When Matilde chooses not to, Virginia, Lane’s older sister, clandestinely begins to clean it for her.
Having a clean house becomes a complicated goal, said director Rebecca Taichman, by phone on a break in rehearsal: “It’s about a desire to clean up the mess of life, to push it down and keep it out of sight — and an opening to the messiness of living. It’s a beautifully executed metaphor.”
Taichman won a Tony Award for in June for “Indecent” on Broadway, only the seventh time a woman has won best director, and she has directed Ruhl’s work before at Lincoln Center, Playwright’s Horizons and Classic Stage Company.
In The Clean House, she said, Matilde arrives cosmically with a desire to laugh and to look with wide eyes at the contradictions of life.
She does not have an impulse to clean, Taichman said, but in this house, that impulse is not a healthy one. When Virginia comes to fold the laundry, she feels cut off from her family and her community.
“She describes herself as needing a task,” Taichman said. “She feels isolated in the extreme.”
She also feels that something is off in her sister’s life, without knowing what or how to help. They live near each other and at a terrible distance apart. So she comes in by a back door.
Lane lives in an extremely white, extremely clean house, Taichman said. She uses it to to erase and repress and organize her universe. But she cannot keep her life so radically organized, and it is about to change.
Two actors play Matilde’s parents in her memories and also Lane’s husband Charles, a surgeon, and Ana, a woman who comes to him with an advanced illness. Lane and Charles, Virginia, Matilde and Ana come together at a turning point for them all, and they begin to recognize an unstoppable need for healing and human connection — and a good joke.
Rulh shows how important it is to laugh, Taichman said: “In a simple and beautiful way, if we’re honest and embrace life in fullness, it has an equal measure of laughter and tears. If we repress one, the other can overflow and take over.”
People can laugh through pain, she said, and that meeting can be painful and beautiful. What may seem opposites can co-exist, as Ana responds to her illness and Matilde remembers her parents and carries their loss.
Growing up in Brazil, with her parents’ stories and lullabyes, with their comedy and their love around her, Matilde learned to respond to death and fear with humor. Ruhl finds power in her response, here in her metaphysical Connecticut.
“Part of American culture she is writing about … is afraid of death and on the run from it,” Taichman said.
As Lane and Charles, as Western doctors, respond to serious illness, Taichman sees both wonders and limitations in Western medicine. There are different ways of thinking about death and dying and the body, she said, and she is increasingly seeing changes in Western approaches. At Mount Sinai hospital in New York City, the cancer unit now has a massage therapist on staff.
“I don’t think that position existed 10 years ago,” she said. “For the patients there it is an important experience to be touched and healed by someone’s hands.”
On Ana’s balcony, Lane and Charles will both have to face the limits of their own skills and choose to be there — or not.
“There’s something comic and surreal and relatable to doing everything you can to save someone you love,” Taichman said, “and sometimes people have needed to be far from a loved one to let go.”
Ruhl focuses on the growing relationships between the four women, she said, and in an opening of the heart.
Matilde tells a joke in Portuguese. At other times she and Ana speak together in Portuguese or Spanish and Ruhl translates, but here, in these few moments, she doesn’t.
“It’s funny, inviting, surprising, delightful,” Taichman said. “It’s an invitation to think in new ways and open your mind and spirit … to other ways of speaking, to other languages and vocabularies. It shows how universal humor is.”
Matlide reaches out with movement and laughter, with guts and gusto. And that shared laughter may be strong enough to shake galaxies.
This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle; my thanks to A&E editor Jeff Borak. In the photo at the top, Priscilla Lopez as Ana and Bernard White as Charles appear in Sarah Ruhl’s ‘The Clean House’ at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo by Daniel Rader, courtesy of WTF.
What: Sarah Ruhl’s ‘The Clean House’
Where: Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Main Stage, ’62 Center, 1000 Main St., Williamstown
When: July 19 to 29
Tickets: $40 to $63
Information: 413-458-3200, wtfestival.org