The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl

Director Stephen Schipper

Reviewer Jane Penistan

Dates and Venue 21 October - 11 November @ 20.00 The Vancouver Playhouse

The Playhouse opened its new season with Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House in a co-production with the Manitoba Theatre Centre. This is a tragicomedy, originally located in Connecticut, but in this production, it could be anywhere in the Western World. Here we are confronted with Latin unselfconscious displays of emotion, contrasted with the controlled behaviour of the North American fear of betraying one’s innermost feelings. The joyous southerners rejoice in their pleasures and express their affections as immediately as they do their disappointments and grief.

There is much symbolism in this script. The clean house has different interpretations for the women, and apples have many associations which pervade here. The set is one of a spare house interior, with a balcony upstage, extending to upper stage left. This bipartite area provides the space for the interplay of real and dream sequences, or magic realism.

Lane (Susan Hogan) and Charles (Andrew Wheeler) are happily married practising doctors, on staff at the local hospital. Charles specializes in surgery, Lane in general medicine. It is their house in which the play is set. The busy Lane needs someone to clean her house. Her maid is the unhappy Matilde (Sarah Henriques). Matilde is the orphan of Brazilian comedians. She has come north to find a life for herself, but cleaning makes her sad. Her true vocation is finding the perfect joke.

Lane’s sister, Virginia (Patricia Hunter), delights in housekeeping with all its inherent tidiness, cleanliness and culinary skills. She secretly agrees to do all the necessary chores for Matilde, giving her time to perfect her research on the perfect joke, as long as her sister Lane has no knowledge of their arrangement. All is well until the pair finds some very unusual feminine underwear in the laundry. To whom does the provocative scarlet garment belong? Surely not the upright, hard working, brilliant Charles? Lane discovers all the deception about her housekeeping and accosts Charles about the owner of the garment in question.

Far from denying any knowledge of this, Charles immediately announces he has found his true love, a patient who is suffering from cancer. He moves in with the vital, loving, courageous, affectionate, Argentinian Ana (Nicola Lipman). Lane is devastated. Charles brings Ana to meet Lane, her sister Virginia, and Matilde. He explains that he has found his bashert – his soul mate. This Jewish concept obliges Charles to break off relations with is wife. For everyone but Lane this is an amicable and happy occasion, concluding with Charles and the two South American women happily going off apple picking.

The sisters quarrel. Charles disappears in search of a tree whose property will help cure Ana, leaving Matilde to care for Ana. But there is no hope for Ana, and she moves in with Lane and the three women care for her until Matilde whispers to her the joke she has found, and like Matilde’s mother, she dies laughing. Lane is gently preparing her body for burial when the distraught Charles returns to sorrow, but also to peace and reconciliation.

The direction here is perceptive and sensitive. The fantasy is well managed and all the happiness and humour of the piece are tastefully underscored. The acting of all members of the cast is of the highest quality, with the characteristics of each role well thought out and believably presented.This is an unusual play, one that has many facets, and is always interesting, intriguing and compassionate.

© 2006 Jane Penistan