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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

At a party, playwright Sarah Ruhl overheard a doctor say, 'My cleaning lady is depressed and won't clean my house, so I took her to the hospital and had her medicated and she still won't clean.' From this chance remark came Sarah Ruhl's play, "The Clean House," a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist. It's had and will have several productions in the US and in Europe. It opens tonight at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg profiles the playwright.

SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:

"The Clean House" begins with a joke.

(Soundbite of "The Clean House")

Ms. GWENYA LAMOS(ph): (Portuguese spoken)

STAMBERG: You don't understand a word, it's in Portuguese but it doesn't matter. The actress, Gwenya Lamos, is so tall, slim, beautiful and tells it so well that you laugh your head off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: A bit later, Matilde, a cleaning lady, speaks of the power of humor.

(Soundbite from "The Clean House")

Unidentified Actress #1: (As Matilde) Good job. It cleans your insides out. If I don't laugh for a week, I feel dirty. My mother once said to me, `Matilde, in order to tell a good joke, you have to believe that your problems are very small and that the world is very big.' She said, `If more women do more jokes, there would be more justice in this world.'

Ms. SARAH RUHL (Playwright, "The Clean House"): Luckily, I was raised by a family who put a premium on humor.

STAMBERG: Sarah Ruhl's dad was a punster, her mother did theater in Chicago. Their dinner table was full of laughter, Thirty-one years old, intense with ginger-colored hair and green eyes, Sarah Ruhl laughs easily. "The Clean House" is about jokes and cleanliness and love and, too, it's a lot about death.

Ms. RUHL: A play without some sadness or a play without some humor, to me, doesn't feel like life, I guess.

STAMBERG: All Sarah Ruhl's works have sadness in them. In "Melancholy Play," the heroine is so unhappy she turns herself into an almond. In "Eurydice," the heroine must choose between death with her father or life with her husband. A character in "The Clean House" wants to laugh herself to death. Sarah Ruhl grew up with these juxtapositions. When she was 18, her father got cancer; two years later, he died. But in this sadness, there was laughter.

Ms. RUHL: His heroism was so much about his wit. I mean, it was about his, you know--it was about his spirituality, too, but it was also about his wit. The three days when he was actually dying, he was making jokes up until the last minute. And I think to be able to do that requires a kind of total lack of self-absorption, you know, this desire to put other people at ease, yet the desire to make other people laugh while you're dying.

STAMBERG: The maid in "The Clean House" searches for and finds the funniest joke in the world so her friend Ana can die laughing. In Washington, DC, Rebecca Taichman directed the Woolly Mammoth Theatre's production last summer. Taichman says when Ana hears that funniest joke, she makes her death a lesson.

Ms. REBECCA TAICHMAN (Director): She helps the other characters in the play kind of understand death as a sort of transformation or release. And in that, there's such a kind of beauty and elegance and magic and mystery in that moment that I think encapsulates sort of an idea of it being a transformation rather than an end.

STAMBERG: Sarah Ruhl studied play writing at Brown with Paula Vogel. Her work is filled with big ideas about life, death, the role of religion, of politics, but director Rebecca Taichman says there is nothing pretentious in Ruhl's writing.

Ms. TAICHMAN: I think she has a very unique quintessential kind of American, I'd say, voice.

(Soundbite of "The Clean House")

Unidentified Actress #1: (As Matilde) People who give up the privilege of cleaning their own houses, they're insane people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Actress #1: (As Matilde) If you do not clean, how do you know if you've made any progress in life? I love dust. The dust always makes progress. If I remove the dust, that is progress. If it weren't for dust, I think that I would die.

Ms. TAICHMAN: She combines epic, really operatic, like, the human questions, mourning and grieving and kind of basic ideas about ways of living with the kind of idiosyncratic foibles and messy messes and dirty messes that are day-to-day life.

(Soundbite of "The Clean House")

Unidentified Actress #2: Is Charles home?

Unidentified Actress #1: (As Matilde) No.

Unidentified Actress #2: Oh, did he call?

Unidentified Actress #1: (As Matilde) No.

Unidentified Actress #2: Oh. Oh, well. Oh, he's probably just sleeping at the hospital. Sometimes there's no time to call home from the hospital. You're going from patient to patient and then, you know, crazy. When we were younger, Charles and I, we would page each other. We had this signal, two for good night, three for--well, I don't know why I'm thinking about this right now. The point is that when you get older, you just know the other person is thinking of you and working hard and thinking of you and you don't need them to call anymore.

STAMBERG: Sarah Ruhl was an ambitious writer from beginning. She describes the very first play she ever wrote.

Ms. RUHL: It was a courtroom drama about land masses in fourth grade.

STAMBERG: Now why is that?

Ms. RUHL: I loved the words like isthmus and peninsula.

STAMBERG: For some reason, her teacher, Mr. Spangenberger chose not to produce that play. Twenty-something years later, Ruhl just premiered an even more ambitious work at Arena Stage in Washington. "Passion Play" is an epic trilogy. It shows the passion of Christ depicted in Elizabethan England, in Hitler's Germany--and the fuhrer shows up in the audience--and in Spearfish, South Dakota, in the Vietnam era.

Ms. MOLLY SMITH (Director): This is someone with a breathtaking, theatrical imagination.

STAMBERG: Molly Smith directed Arena's production of "Passion Play." It runs more than three hours and is very much a work in progress. But it reveals the breadth of Ruhl's imagination and foreshadows the brilliant future of this 31-year-old. Again, director Molly Smith.

Ms. SMITH: I think Sarah operates on a different plain than most people. which is why she's such an explicit writer. She sees the world in a very different way.

STAMBERG: What do you think she means by that?

Ms. RUHL: I don't know. I mean, when you see the world in a particular way, you just see the world that way, you know. So I just find it interesting, you know, different painters looking at their palates, you know, some people think, `Oh, it's a rational choice that they use that particular palette.' And I think actually maybe not.

STAMBERG: Sarah Ruhl is not afraid to engage with the most complicated and difficult ideas and to put them on the stage, not afraid to ask an audience to think and laugh and be filled with wonder. "The Clean House" ends with this declaration from Matilde, the cleaning lady. 'I think heaven is the sea of untranslatable jokes, only everyone is laughing.' I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Photos from "The Clean House" and "Passion Play" are at npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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