Sarah Ruhl’s distinct voice is immediately recognizable in her award-winning play, The Clean House. While there are other writers who could perhaps engage audiences with a story about house cleaning, Ruhl explores this prosaic topic in a truly sublime way. In a style reminiscent of the Latin American writer Gabriel Garc-a M¡rquez, this production moves to tears through laughter, managing to resist the maudlin representation of death, love, and betrayal.
The first lines in the play are in Portuguese. The Brazilian maid/wannabe-comedienne Mathilde tells a bawdy joke-something we infer from her body language. Delightfully funny in the role of the charming Mathilde, Paula Christensen then switches to accented English, which she maintains successfully throughout. Her playful and creative spirit stands in contrast to that of Lane (Colette Kilroy), her employer. Dressed in a smart white pantsuit, Lane is a highly accomplished doctor: efficient, practical, and cerebral. So when Mathilde becomes depressed, Lane quickly solves the problem by prescribing medication for her. Lane will later share her own love story in a characteristically clinical manner, saying “My husband and I met at the medical school. We fell in love over a dead body.” When Lane’s husband, Charles, leaves her for Ana, his Argentine patient, it is not surprising.
Humor in this play is almost always intertwined with sorrow. At one poignant moment, Charles (Rudolph Willrich) sings a Cuban love song while performing surgery on Ana (Franca Barchiesi). Mathilde’s memories of her parents in Brazil are similarly surreal. The parents are played by the same actors, Willrich and Barchiesi, who play Charles and Ana. Underlying this identification is the play’s subtle criticism of the world of achievement and material success as represented by the sterile life of two doctors. The play further suggests that nothing is ever neat and tidy. Despite perfect appearances, there is no such thing as a clean house.
Barchiesi truly glows as Charles’s soul mate, Ana. Kilroy is exquisite as Lane, who never succumbs to the cliched, caricatured portrayal of a “career woman.” Laurie O’Brien shows great range as Virginia, the obsessive-compulsive cleaner with a dust fetish and the unfulfilled ambition of being a Classics scholar.