URBANA — Katie Baldwin Prosise proposed to the Celebration Company board a couple of plays she could direct.
She thought they were givens, as each had few characters, few props and one set.
But the board members one-upped her, giving her Sarah Ruhl's more difficult, surrealistic play "The Clean House" to helm.
It opens tonight at the Station Theatre.
"I'm up to the task. I think I underestimated myself," the 30-year-old Prosise said before rehearsal Monday evening. "This really is an adventurous script. I feel like I'll be a champion, on top of the mountain, once we finish this."
A finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama, "The Clean House" by playwright/critics' darling Ruhl introduces theater-goers to Matilde, a Brazilian maid who hates cleaning.
Her employer is Lane, a driven American doctor. Lane's husband, Charles, is a surgeon who falls in love with a patient he considers his soulmate. Another character is Lane's unhappily idle sister, Virginia, who ends up helping Matilde clean Lane's house. They all live in what the Celebration Company calls "metaphysical Connecticut."
As Matilde, Laura Anne Welle tells three jokes in Portuguese and has a few more lines in that language. She's been studying it online and with her friend, Stefanie Senior, an actress whose family is from Brazil.
"I do a lot of weaving in and out of Portuguese to English and my character speaks a lot in Spanish, which is actually significantly easier for me because I speak Spanish," Welle said.
Welle, a 2009 alumna of The High School of St. Thomas More and a graphic-design major at the University of Illinois, has been in a lot of musicals. This is her first dramatic role.
"I love my character," she said of the 27-year-old Matilde. "She undergoes this kind of traumatic identity crisis. The media mentions a lot of problems that 20-somethings have, but not mental illness."
Welle also loves the script — she thinks it has the magic realism that's common to Latin American art.
"The characters themselves are grounded in reality but a lot of the scenes are grounded in magic realism," she said. "It's purposefully poetic but not heavy-handed."
The script calls for an all-white set — it depicts the interior of Lane's home. Deb Richardson portrays Lane, while Anne Newman plays her sister, Virginia. Richardson's real-life sister, Jodi Matthis Prosser, portrays Ana, a patient of Lane's surgeon husband, played by David Barkley, who in real life is Richardson's partner.
Perhaps convoluted. But "this cast is phenomenal," Prosise said.
"The Clean House" premiered in 2004 at the Yale Repertory Theater. Two years later it was staged in New York, at Lincoln Center.
Times critic Christopher Isherwood described the Ruhl play as a "strange grab bag of ideas and images, together with some more exotic ingredients" that "magically coheres to form one of the finest and funniest new plays you're likely to see in New York this season."
He also described "The Clean House" as a compassionate comedy in which "the best things in life — a sublime joke, a fulfilling purpose, a soul mate, even a satisfactory death — are infinitely worth waiting for."
Prosise said when she first read the script she didn't know if she could direct it. She read it again and fell in love with it.
"I told Gary Ambler (of the Celebration Company board of directors) 'This is so beautiful and impossible, but I really think I can do it.'
"The themes hit close to my heart — it's a play about the transformative power of love and humor, and I believe very strongly in both of those things."
If you go
What: The Celebration Company presents "The Clean House" by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Katie Baldwin Prosise, with Laura Anne Welle as Matilde, Deb Richardson as Lane, Anne Newman as Virginia, Jodi Matthis Prosser as Ana and David Barkley as Charles
When: 8 p.m. today through Sunday; Feb. 26-March 2; March 5-8
Where: Station Theatre, 223 N. Broadway Ave., U
Tickets: $15 on Fridays and Saturdays; $10 on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays
Information: 384-4000; stationtheatre.com
Estimated running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes, with intermission