WELLFLEET -- The Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater spent the weekend opening its shiny new house, the Julie Harris Stage on Route 6, with a play appropriately focused on chaos and order, endings and beginnings, loss and jokes: Sarah Ruhl's 2005 Pulitzer finalist, "The Clean House." A company that can build a beautiful new theater while maintaining its commitment to the grungy, beloved harborside shack where it began clearly knows a thing or two about that kind of balance.
On Saturday's gala opening night, which featured a cheering ovation for Julie Harris as she knelt onstage, kissed her hand, and slapped the floor to dedicate the space, the production occasionally felt a little rough around the edges. But "The Clean House" is mostly sturdy enough to stand strong despite the wobbles.
Of the many things to love about Sarah Ruhl's plays, the most important may be that they are plays; they simply couldn't be anything else. She writes for the theater, which means that her characters, her stories, her images, and her language all truly come to life only on the stage.
Some of Ruhl's situations are literally impossible -- people seeing into each other's imaginations, objects breaking the laws of physics, jokes so funny they can kill -- but she nevertheless makes us believe, intensely, that we're seeing them happen. If she ignores the logic of reality, in its place she gives us hilarious, poignant, and unforgettable images that have a deep emotional logic all their own.
"The Clean House" is thus an exuberant and heartbreaking piece of work. It's "about" a cleaning woman who hates to clean, but it's really about laughter and death and fury and love, about all the ways we misunderstand each other but somehow manage to connect anyway, and about our longing to make sense of an often senseless world. Like its jokes -- told in Portuguese and never translated -- it somehow speaks directly to our hearts even when our ears can't quite catch what it's saying.
That makes it a wonderfully appropriate play for the Wellfleet gang, which brightens the Cape every summer with intelligent, entertaining productions of thought-provoking and artistically interesting new work. And here's hoping that over the course of its run, which ends July 21, artistic director Jeff Zinn's staging of "The Clean House" will find the tricky balance between humor and tragedy that sometimes faltered Saturday night.
Jessica Pimentel, for example, brings vivacity and great wit to her joke-telling as Matilde, the cleaning woman who'd rather do stand-up. But some of the script's hairpin turns into sorrow send her too far toward bathos; we'd feel her mourning for her parents more if she displayed it less.
Janet Morrison's Lane, too, sometimes hits her emotional extremes too hard. Lane, the driven doctor who hires Matilde to clean, needs to start out very tightly controlled so that, when crisis makes her fall apart, she's as surprised as we are by her hitherto unexpressed passions. Here, she's too clearly furious from the start.
As Lane's sister, Virginia, who loves to clean, Laura Esterman maintains a sharper balance between neurosis and freedom. And Stephen Russell gives a delightfully complex portrayal of Lane's crisis-provoking husband -- he does seem startled by his own emotions, and the effect is amusing and sweet. Socorro Santiago plays opposite him with wisdom and warmth, both as his unforeseeably intoxicating patient, Ana, and in the scenes that have them acting out Matilde's memories of her parents.
The large, handsome new stage gives set designer Anita Fuchs space to create an airy living room and, when called for, a magical seaside balcony that's somehow above it. That balcony looked a little unstable on Saturday, and its railings sometimes obstructed the actors' faces. Nathan Leigh made appropriate, if sometimes obvious, musical choices in his sound design; Kevin Hardy's lighting and Rebecca Rozin's costumes, though generally fine, struck a few false notes.
Like the occasional clunkiness in emotional tone, though, these awkwardnesses feel like the growing pains of a company stretching itself into its fine new space. With time, the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater will doubtless feel as comfortable and as stimulating here as it does in that leaky old hut on the harbor.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.