Remember this name: Selina Fillinger. It’s the name of a young playwright — very young, precocious and prolific. And, a playwright who happened to be a graduate of South Eugene High School, before earning a degree at Northwestern University.
Fillinger has written more acclaimed plays in her 20s than some playwrights write in a lifetime. At age 28, she had her Broadway debut last year with POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.
POTUS is a farce, but her Off-Broadway hit from 2019, Something Clean, now playing at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, is deeply disturbing. Beautifully directed by Inga Wilson and with a cunning set design by Steen V. Mitchell that strongly influences the staging, Something Clean — partly inspired by an actual case in California in 2016 — delves into a family disaster.
Long-married Charlotte (Jeany Van Meltebeke Snider) and Doug (Paul Dunckel) are white and privileged. Until recently, Charlotte’s life was meticulously orderly, and her husband was content. Their 20-year-old son, Kai, was a well-known college basketball star, but a couple of months before the play begins, he was convicted of raping a young woman on the litter-covered ground behind a filthy dumpster late at night. Unlike Kai, she was not white. To make matters worse, the judge gave Kai an exceptionally light sentence, just six months, which has stirred up animosity against the family.
Charlotte is so bereft that she can hardly communicate with her husband, and doesn’t want him touching her. They try a series of therapists but don’t resonate with any of them. While Doug’s work routine keeps him grounded, Charlotte has quit going to her book club and gym. She doesn’t feel comfortable and can’t face inquiring friends.
She is so emotionally unsettled that it’s almost as if the rape happened to her. Somehow, she finds her way to a sexual assault center, not to ask for help but to volunteer at menial jobs. Charlotte, a fanatic for cleanliness who carries rubber gloves and disinfectants in her purse, expected to benefit emotionally from cleaning the cluttered assault center.
Joey (Michael Eclevia), the young gay manager, is sweetly welcoming. He doesn’t know her real name, which would no doubt horrify him, and he rarely talks about his own trauma. Gradually, they forge a friendship as she encourages him to consider various options for a happier future.
To know more about what is going on inside Charlotte’s brain, we need only observe how she moves around the stage from her home to the support center and back. There are no direct routes. Because of the way the furniture is arranged in circles rather than in straight lines, everyone must pace around the clusters in circles or spirals, indicating a loss of Charlotte’s formerly well-ordered existence and the impossibility of moving forward. There is no easier way of transporting themselves, and they wander in a maze, exactly the way their brains are functioning.
Joey wishes to terminate his dependence on an older man. Doug fears his marriage is irretrievably broken. Charlotte tortures herself by wondering what she did wrong as a mother. How did she fail her beloved only child? What will their life be like when he returns from jail? Will they have to move to another part of the country?
Her pain is our pain. Because all three equally talented actors are so truthful and so real in their portrayals, we audience members can’t help imagining ourselves in Charlotte’s place and asking ourselves the same questions. It’s a marvel that Fillinger can dig so deep and uncover so much richness of detail in a play that lasts a scant 90 minutes.
Something Clean is playing at Oregon Contemporary Theatre through March 19; times and tickets through OCTheatre.org or 541-465-1506.