Charlotte offers her services to Joey, the volunteer coordinator of a sexual assault crisis center. Would she like to work with kids? asks Joey, an affable young black gay man. No, replies the tightly-wound, middle-aged suburban white woman. She’d rather scrub toilets.
Soon enough in Selina Fillinger’s SOMETHING CLEAN, the reason for Charlotte’s odd preference becomes clear: Charlotte’s son is serving a six-month sentence for raping a woman during a college fraternity party. Wearing heavy yellow kitchen gloves, Charlotte tries to wash away her internal shame by washing her external environment with manic intensity.
Small gestures are fraught in SOMETHING CLEAN
Charlotte’s unease with Joey is just as apparent at home with her husband Doug. Hiding from a glaring public spotlight on their son Kai’s incarceration, they have lost control of their lives and their relationship. Neither knows how to handle this new insecurity. Even small gestures are fraught with tension. Sideshow and Rivendell Theatres’ co-production delves into the deep waters of parental responsibility, marital closeness and personal healing while also exploring racial disparities in the justice system and the challenges facing sexual assault survivors.
In the neutral space of a beige wall unit set, three fine Chicago actors – Patrick Agada, Mary Cross and Guy Massey – express multiple layers of pain. Agada as Joey maintains an upbeat persona as he continues to process sexual abuse that began at age nine and will mark him for life. As Charlotte, Cross embodies a sheltered wife who struggles to regain a sense of safety. Massey projects Doug’s surface stability that conceals his desperation. “I hate Sundays,” he says poignantly. “I wish I could just sleep through them.”
Sideshow and Rivendell Theatres capitalize on humor
The cast, together with director Lauren Shouse, capitalize on the script’s humor to keep the stark subject matter from sinking into darkness. Charlotte obsessively washes dishes at home and tidies the dumpster behind her son’s fraternity at night. At the crisis center, however, Joey coaxes her into using her hands for more human-based tasks. As she fills goodie bags with condoms for a workshop session, she notes distastefully that some are strawberry-vanilla flavored. “Nobody wants to make love to a milkshake,” she says with a levity that indicates she has finally relaxed in Joey’s company.
In recent years, campus sexual assault has figured prominently in media headlines and rocked college administrations. The play jumps right into this milieu with Charlotte and Doug’s basketball star son’s rape of a young woman as its inciting incident. Compared to Black assailants, Kai’s light sentence has sparked offstage protests – and outrage from Joey when he eventually learns the truth. But the flammable topic becomes somewhat secondary to Charlotte’s own journey to relearn intimacy.
In this viewer’s opinion, that drift is a problem. We learn so little about Kai and his victim that the crime remains vague; its reality doesn’t quite pinch hard enough as the source of Charlotte and Doug’s remorse. What comes through more powerfully is Joey’s recounting of his childhood violation and his mother’s refusal to acknowledge it. Not too many details; just strong emotions that allow us to believe its impact. Despite these reservations, SOMETHING CLEAN is richly written and sensitively produced. Its core question -- how do we know when and if and how someone wants intimacy with another person? – is worthy of attention.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Patrick Agada, Mary Cross, Guy Massey
Selina Fillinger (playwright), Lauren Shouse (director), Arnel Sancianco (scenic designer), Noel Huntzinger (costume designer), Diane D. Fairchild (lighting designer), Eric Backus (composer/sound designer), Jonathan Berg-Einhorn (properties designer), Gina M. Di Salvo (dramaturg), Harrison Ornelas (technical director), Casie Morell (stage manager), Jennifer Aparicio (production manager)
Now through July 21
Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 PM
Sundays at 2:30 PM
Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater
2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows recently aired on BBC Radio 4.