08 October 2015

The Clean House, by Sarah Ruhl

I have really enjoyed all of the Sarah Ruhl plays I’ve seen, read, and taught, but this was my first encounter with her play The Clean House. I wasn’t much sold on the first act, but after the interval the show really picked up and I saw the kind of dramaturgical skill that has always impressed me in Ruhl’s work—principally, that her characters are always complex and there are no clear heroes or villains, and that her feminist message is more situational than didactic. Don’t get me wrong, the first act was riotously funny, but I felt that the meat of the play’s message came in the second half.

The play tells the story of four women whose fates intersect. Matilde is a Brazilian housekeeper working for Lane, a successful doctor married to a handsome man named Charles. But Matilde doesn’t like cleaning houses. She wants to be a comedian. And she spends much of the play trying to think of the perfect joke, though she also worries that if she finds it she will die (because her mother died laughing at a joke told by her father). On the other hand, Lane’s sister, Virginia, loves cleaning houses. It gives her a sense of purpose, and a way to combat the sense that she may have wasted her life as a housewife. So—without telling Lane—Virginia begins to clean Lane’s house instead of Matilde.
While this is going on, Lane finds out that Charles has decided to leave her for a breast cancer patient named Ana. Lane is understandably devastated, but Charles and Ana seem unable to comprehend her suffering. Charles and Ana want Lane—and Matilde and Virginia—to be a part of their new life and to share their happiness. But their happiness is short lived, as Ana’s cancer returns and she refuses to go to the hospital. Charles goes to Alaska to seek and elm tree whose bark he believes can cure Ana, and Lane is browbeaten by Virginia and Matilde into caring for Ana. The four women more or less move into Lane’s house, and establish a kind of commune around caring for the dying Ana. When she knows there is no hope for a cure, Ana requests that Matilde kill her by telling the perfect joke so that the sick woman can die laughing.

The WVU Theatre production of the play, directed by Jim Knipple, was very well performed and kept the audience laughing the entire time. Although every performer was good, far and away Kristen Aviles—playing Matilde—was the funniest. Her delivery ranged from the comically lethargic to the implicitly filthy, and although many of the jokes were presented in rapid fire Portuguese, they always got a laugh from an audience probably few if any of whom understood the language.

Monica Hanigan (Lane) and Amber Gonzalez (Virginia) also gave excellent performances. Though they weren’t as overtly funny, both actors played through a range of emotions—from rage, to joy, to exasperation, to despair—with expert skill. Wilhelmina McWhorter (Ana) gave a complex performance as the ‘other woman’ without being tinged with guilt. The character walks a fine line between being a hated archetype and being a suffering victim, and McWhorter performed that balance really well. Glenn Muir’s performance as Charles probably didn’t extend his range as much as the other actors, but he did a bang up job portraying the closest thing to a peripheral character there is in the play.

In terms of the production itself, the set was nice, with two levels that divided the action in purposeful ways. But what I really liked was the subtle way in which technology was used to augment the performance without distracting from the actors’ abilities. A subtle projector was used to help the audience navigate through changes in location, and to explain what was happening when Matilde concentrated on thinking of the perfect joke. In the past few seasons WVU has produced some shows where I feel the degree of technology—flashing lights, multimedia, competing sound systems, etc.—have distracted from the actors’ performances and from the storylines. For my (probably in this sense fairly conservative) money, the light touch of special effects in The Clean House was a much better choice.