Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre Review
A Dual Critics Review by Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom
ABET opened its first production of 2018 on January 19th with Sarah Ruhl’s comedy “The Clean House.” It will run at 716 Ocean Boulevard in Atlantic Beach, Florida through February 4th. For reservations, call (904) 249-7177 or visit abettheatre.com.
Award-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl has been a popular playwright in the North Florida area. “Eurydice” was staged at Players by the Sea and Jacksonville University. “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” played at St. Augustine’s Limelight Theatre and Gainesville’s Hippodrome, while “In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play” was a big hit at Players by the Sea. “The Clean House” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 and this quirky comedy has been popular in the USA and abroad.
Unless you’ve read something about this play, you may think you are in the wrong theatre when the show opens with Matilde, a Brazilian maid, telling a joke in Portuguese. Her parents were comedians; at one point, she tells us that her mother died from “over laughing at a joke.” The role is brilliantly portrayed by Gisella Silva, complete with a black and white maid’s outfit, a foreign accent, and voluminous curly hair. Gisella has proven to be a very versatile actress, with appearances in Limelight’s “Boeing Boeing” and “39 Steps,” Theatre Jacksonville’s “Triangle Factory Fire Project,” and Orange Park’s “Hot Bed Hotel.”
Matilde has been hired as a house cleaner by Lane, an American physician with a demanding practice. The role is skillfully and playfully performed by Gloria Ware, an experienced actress who appeared in many venues throughout the country before moving to Jacksonville. Locally, she holds the rare distinction of having won two Pelican Awards in the same season at Players by the Sea, which were awarded for roles in “Memphis” and “All The Way.”
Lane obviously loves a clean house, as evidenced by the wonderful modernist living room setting designed by Rhodie Jackson, the play’s talented director. Matilde loves writing comedy material and hates cleaning houses; a fortuitous visit from Lane’s sister Virginia solves Matilde’s problem. Virginia loves to clean and offers to take over Matilde’s tasks. Both agree they must conceal their changed roles from Lane.Toni Lang Phillips is wonderful as the gentle and emotionally needy Virginia. She speaks softly, smiles while sweeping, dusting, and ironing, and brings dignity to engagement in these tasks.
During intermission, after the female half of the Dual Critics declared that it was really really funny, the male half of the duo stated that he had observed that the laughter was limited to the women in the audience; a statement she found even funnier.
The second act is even funnier with the entrance of Lane’s husband Charles, who is also a physician. This comic role is portrayed by Michael Ray and is his first show at ABET. He debuted in local theatre at Theatre Jacksonville, where he appeared in “Vince Lombardi” in the lead role. He also appeared in comic roles at TJ in “Hilda’s Yard” and “The Games Afoot.”
The play gets stranger and stranger as Michael falls in love with Ana, a lovely but older woman he has treated for breast cancer. Gretta Russe, who has graced stages at the beach with appearances in many roles, is convincing as the woman he intends to marry and has brought home to meet his wife.
If all of this sounds a bit absurdist, that is because it is. If you have seen any of Ms.Ruhl’s other plays you know she likes to bring interesting insights and surprising images to the stage.
Director Rhodie Jackson has done a masterful bit of casting as each character is exactly right for their roles. Not only is she an insightful director, but a fine performer who has appeared in a variety of roles on local stages in Jacksonville, Orange Park, St. Augustine, and Fernandina Beach.
We will leave the ending for you to discover should you decide to see this show. No spoilers here, but we will hint that one of the funniest scenes involves Michael’s plans to search for a yew tree. The play keeps audiences interested, since you can’t predict what’s going to happen. And as a rule, you can’t go wrong seeing a play by Sarah Ruhl.
The Production Team included: Rhodie Jackson (Director); Elizabeth Rohman (Stage Manager); Ashley Penrod (Choreographer); Bryan Frank (Light/Sound Design); Nicole Kosnik Anderson & Betsy Totten Darnell (Light/Sound Operations); Rhodie Jackson & Cast (Costume Design).