Nothing excites serious stage actors more than the emergence of an important new playwright, and the 33-year-old American Sara Ruhl, author of The Clean House, which opens this week at Ensemble Theatre, appears to be just that-perhaps even in a league with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Her reputation is based on a corpus of plays-The Clean House, Passion Play, Eurydice, and Late: A Cowboy Song-distinguished by their poetic economy, lightness, and wit, as well as their sudden openings onto great depths of pathos and sublimity.
The Clean House revolves around two sisters, Lane (Colette Kilroy) and Virginia (Laurie O’Brien). As the plot develops, two problems facing Lane come to light. Her husband Charles (Rudolph Willrich) is having an affair with Ana (Franca Barchiesi), and her maid, Mathilde (Paula Christensen), has stopped cleaning the house because she is too depressed.
When Virginia finds out that Mathilde can’t clean she is delighted, as she herself has a cleaning compulsion and sees her sister’s misfortune as an opportunity to gratify her own desire for tidiness. Virginia slips into Mathilde’s role secretly and enjoys making sneaky order out of her sister Lane’s chaos. Mathilde, in turn, has an obsession of her own: This melancholy maid is also a comedian, and she is on a quest for the perfect joke. Her task is shot through with anxiety and danger because she lost her own mother to a killer joke-one that caused the woman literally to laugh herself to death.
I sat down recently in the lovely Alhecama Theatre courtyard to discuss the production with three members of the cast-Franca Barchiesi, Paula Christensen, and Rudolph Willrich. Here’s some of what they had to say:
Franca Barchiesi: I also played Ana in the original production of The Clean House at the Yale Repertory Theatre, and it was magical. There is a cleanness to these lines that makes them very distinctive, and the primal relationship that exists between sisters really comes alive in this play. With Sara Ruhl, what you read on the page may seem simple, but underneath there’s this incredible power, which I think has to do with her poetics, the fact that she has the ability to shift very rapidly through metaphor to an entirely different level of meaning.
Rudolph Willrich: It’s important, I think, that both Charles and Lane are doctors. Doctors make death decisions, and they confront terrible things all the time that they have to clean up by surgery or other means. All of this requires that they be very tough, but there’s a way in which they also have to stay open to love in order to survive. Even a surgeon can’t just cut out the chaos of becoming.
Paula Christensen: My character [the maid, Mathilde] is inspired by her parents, whom she sees as having led these amazing lives that involved access to something larger than themselves, and she wants that too. She’s searching for the ultimate, and that is always at least a little bit of a scary quest. She really believes that if she finds it, it might kill her.
FB: As in death, where there is loss and then a process that ends either in disintegration or in a new synthesis, these characters have to find a higher wholeness. This kind of new integrity is always happening, whether it’s through love relations, or through other :
PC: Other things, like cleaning your house.
FB: (laughing) Yes, can we tidy our lives? That is the question.
PC: You can hire an immigrant to do it. (Laughter all around.)
FB: Ruhl got the idea at a party of doctors. There was a woman there who started talking about her maid, and how she had become depressed, and then got going on what she was prescribing for her, so that she could keep doing her work.
RW: So you see there’s a clever switch there, and an irony.
PC: It’s a simple idea, but with all these complex things in it-like a haiku.
The Clean House opens at the Ensemble Theatre on Thursday, September 27, and runs through Sunday, October 21. For tickets or more information, call 965-5400 or visit ensembletheatre.com.