Inspired by a chance remark at a cocktail party—a doctor proclaiming, “I didn’t go to medical school to clean my own house!”—Sarah Ruhl’s inspired new play, now running at the Goodman, is a blend of meticulous social observation and visionary magical realism. Above all, it reflects Ruhl’s determination to push the limits of theatrical convention while remaining solidly committed to clear storytelling. The setup is simple: high-powered surgeon Lane (Mary Beth Fisher) has trouble dealing with her depressed live-in maid, Matilde (Guenia Lemos). Matilde would rather pursue her dream of a comedy career than clean houses. Lane’s sister Virginia (Christine Estabrook) strikes a secret bargain with Matilde: she’ll do the cleaning, which she finds therapeutic. The play’s first act focuses on the rich and socially fraught relationships of these three women. The incisive performances by a gifted trio of actresses, all blessed with a wicked sense of timing, makes the first half of “The Clean House” thoroughly delightful. The second act, in which the mysterious Ana (Marilyn Dodds Frank) gradually takes over the household, is rather more diffuse and occasionally slips into the overly ridiculous, as Lane’s husband (Patrick Clear) takes off on an Arctic quest. The moments that work, though, like the transformation of Lane’s Spartan apartment by teeming bushels of apples, are simultaneously thought-provoking and stunningly beautiful. The production benefits throughout by Jessica Thebus’ crisp and pitch-perfect direction. (John Beer)
“The Clean House” plays at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312)443-3800, through June 4.