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'The Clean House' director Laura Kepley (left) watches Angela Brazil rehearse.
"The Clean House" director Laura Kepley (left) watches Angela Brazil rehearse. (Stew Milne for the Boston Globe)

A fresh start in 'Clean House'

In Sarah Ruhl's "The Clean House" five characters open up to life in ways they couldn't have dreamed of. And four of the five are older than 50.

The sense that people can make great changes in their lives at any age is part of the beauty of Ruhl's play, which opens tonight at Trinity Repertory Company .

In "The Clean House," Lane , a high-powered doctor in her 50s, hires a Brazilian, Matilde , to clean the house she shares with her husband, also a doctor. Matilde is depressed from the recent deaths of her parents, who she describes as the funniest people in Brazil. Her mother died laughing from a joke her father told; afterward he shot himself. So Matilde came to America to clean houses.

As it turns out, she doesn't like to clean. But Lane's sister, Virginia , loves to. So Virginia cleans, Matilde thinks up jokes, and together they find out, via a pair of sexy black panties among the newly washed clothes, that Lane's husband Charles is cheating on her.

Yet a play that looks to be venturing into classic sitcom territory ends up challenging stereotypes. Out of this situation come unexpected alliances, revelations about the past, dirty jokes told in Portuguese, and some wacky behavior driven by extreme love. And despite its frank dealing with cancer and adultery, the play is not "about" those subjects.

"The whole play is filled with surprises and transformations," says director Laura Kepley , by phone before rehearsal. "Sarah Ruhl has an amazing awareness of the human condition. The other big thing . . . in the play is the idea that we can be one person and an unexpected event comes along and knocks us off our feet and gives us a second chance. I'm calling this a coming-of-age story for all the characters in the play -- with the idea that you can be coming into your own at 67."

Ruhl, a recently named MacArthur Foundation Fellow , is a powerful emerging voice. "The Clean House" won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2004 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama the following year . The play, which finished a run at Lincoln Center in January, has been performed all over the country. And now, in less than a year, the Boston area will have three productions. After Trinity's comes the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater's next month and New Repertory Theatre will mount it in February 2008.

Ruhl, whose other plays include "Passion Play : A Cycle ," "Dead Man's Cell Phone," "Melancholy Play, " and "Eurydice," got her MFA from Brown University and studied playwriting with Paula Vogel.

Actress Angela Brazil , the "baby" of the cast, admits to being a little older than her character, Matilde, who's 27. She says the play is popular with theaters for a number of reasons.

"What it's speaking to . . . is you can't live your life alone," she says by phone from Providence. "That's kind of resonating in this world right now, at least to me. The three women in the play that have the longest journeys, Virginia, Lane , and Matilde, start out in their very special alone spaces. They discover that you can only move forward and open up and live life more fully if you connect with people and allow that to happen."

Both she and Kepley say the play stands out both because it was written by a woman and because it has so many good roles for older women actors, something that Trinity's company has an abundance of. In addition to Brazil, the cast includes long-time Trinity favorites Cynthia Strickland, Barbara Meek, Janice Duclos, and William Damkoehler.

Brazil, although Portuguese by birth -- her family is from the Azores -- doesn't speak the language and spent several weeks phoetically learning the Portuguese joke that opens the play. It's a long joke about a man who's never had sex before asking his doctor for advice on how to handle his honeymoon, and illustrates the transformative power of theater.

"This play shows us how much we can understand with our hearts and spirit that we may not understand with our intelligence," Kepley says. "In the beginning of the joke we have no idea what she's saying, but by the end of the joke we get it."