"The Clean House" is a delicate play for rough times. The promising young playwright Sarah Ruhl offers up a radical set of notions: that human beings are not inherently selfish, that people can ask for forgiveness and be granted it with grace, that we can live without telling lies to each other -- and even die laughing.
Ruhl's style is intriguingly offbeat. Her sense of rhythm and image on a stage puts you in mind of something you might see at Sundance. And the staging her play receives at Woolly Mammoth, under the canny direction of Rebecca Bayla Taichman, accentuates Ruhl's poetic worldview with few harmfully sugary detours. As with most original voices, it takes a while to tune into Ruhl's wavelength. Once connected, though, you commune warmly with her funny and compassionate sense of life's metamorphosing rewards and punishments.
The production has been blessed, too, with a beguiling central performance by Guenia Lemos as a Brazilian woman in her mid-twenties who's hired as a maid in a house in what the dramatist calls "metaphysical Connecticut." Not far off, in terms of appeal, is Sarah Marshall, who plays a middle-aged clean-aholic coming apart from too much dust and too little emotional engagement. Franca Barchiesi, Naomi Jacobson and Mitchell Hebert round out a cast that adds a keenly accomplished air to this dramatist's auspicious Washington debut.
If the evening begins with each aswirl in his or her own eddy, by the end they've been drawn together in one irresistible vortex. This occurs primarily in the home of Lane (Jacobson) and Charles (Hebert), married doctors too distracted to notice each other anymore. Narelle Sissons's living room is a reflection of the characters' relationship: as sterile as the hospitals in which they have privileges. Everything is white, white, white, which explains the need for the live-in domestic Matilde (Lemos), a dreamy, attractively rumpled young woman whose devotion to housework is about on a par with Paris Hilton's.
Fortunately for Matilde, Lane's sister Virginia (Marshall), a depressive for whom an hour with an ironing board is therapy, willingly takes up Matilde's slack and secretly becomes her sister's housekeeper. Marshall gives such an intelligently controlled performance that she manages to make folding undershirts seem a guilty pleasure.
"The Clean House," however, is less concerned with sitcom-ish plot formulations than with the mysterious power unleashed by unlikely alliances, such as the bond between Virginia and Matilde, or the one between Charles and the new autumnal love of his life, Ana (Barchiesi). One of the characters is stricken with a terminal illness, but the play's toughest task falls to Jacobson's Lane, a woman with her jaw permanently clenched, who is beseeched by besotted Charles to welcome Ana into their home.
Ruhl intermittently has surtitles flashed on a panel above the set, as if her characters were the subjects of a documentary. Some of them are mere recitations of apparent events: "Virginia takes stock of her sister's dust." Others offer ironic commentary: "Virginia and Lane experience a primal moment in which they are 7 and 9 years old." The device is strangely comforting. It adds a spiritual dimension to a play that seems almost as preoccupied with matters of the soul as of the heart.
Matilde proves to be a delightfully unorthodox guide through this story of wounds and healing, and Lemos brings an ethereal appeal to her portrayal; her Matilde feels somehow both grounded and guileless. Some of what the playwright asks of her walks right up to the edge of archness. Matilde tells us, for example, that her parents, now dead, were "the funniest people in Brazil" and that she is on a mission in their honor to compose the perfect joke. Oddly enough, this quest serves a purpose at the play's climax, which touchingly justifies the several curious scenes you've sat through, listening cluelessly to jokes in Portuguese.
As it shifts from the consolations of housework to those of death and dying, "The Clean House" mixes whimsy and solemnity a bit too artificially. (The journey by Charles to Alaska in search of a yew tree is one plot twist too many; by this point, we've already been apprised that he'd do anything for Ana.) Still, there's a moving idea of reconciliation in the production's final movement that's extremely well handled by Taichman and her ensemble.
Up next for Ruhl is another Washington assignment, the premiere at Arena Stage later this summer of her epic-length "Passion Play." It's something to look forward to. For the best reasons, "The Clean House" leaves you wanting more.
The Clean House, by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman. Lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Michael Kraskin; costumes, Anne Kennedy; music supervision and original music, Martin Desjardins. Approximately 2 hours 10 minutes. Through Aug. 14 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit www.woollymammoth.net.