Cleaning is good for the soul — and so is laughter. Both themes are elegantly and imaginatively intertwined in Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House,” the Susan Smith Blackburn winner receiving its world preem at Yale Rep. The production marks the arrival of a playwright with a unique comic voice, perspective and sense of theater. It also presents a wondrously mad and moving work that is sure to have a life far beyond the three productions planned at major regional houses this season.
The fast-moving play takes the simple tasks of housecleaning and joke-telling and gives them transcendental levels of meaning. Ruhl’s world, “a metaphysical Connecticut,” is both familiar and foreign as she explores the relationships of Lane (Elizabeth Norment), a workaholic doctor; her surgeon-husband Charles (Tom Bloom), who finds his soulmate with a charismatic dying patient, beautiful Argentinian Ana (Franca M. Barchiesi); Lane’s estranged sister, Virginia (Laurie Kennedy), who loves to clean; and a Brazilian maid, Mathilda (Zilah Mendoza), who doesn’t.
Cleaning makes Mathilda sad, because she would prefer to be inventing jokes rather than vacuuming. Born to parents who daily celebrated joy — her mother literally died laughing — Mathilda is on a mission to find the perfect joke, even if it is in Portuguese.
But that’s not particularly funny to Lane, who is uncomfortable with the conflicts of class in the maid-employer relationship. (“I don’t want an interesting person to clean my house,” she says. “I just want my house cleaned.”) The doctor’s Endust-loving sister suggests to the maid that she secretly take over her household tasks.
But when the doctor’s husband brings his newfound love — an older woman who has cancer, in a neat twist on the “other woman” — to meet his wife, Lane discovers an antiseptic home is not always the best cure for a disconnected life. Sometimes one must learn to rise above the mess of life and love.
Ruhl’s play brings to mind the long-ago period when the Rep was home to such wildly original comedic writers as Christopher Durang, Albert Innaurato and Harry Kondoleon. Ruhl belongs to this class of comedy, and her use of language reveals a poet with the gift of gag. “We were anatomy partners,” Charles says, recounting how he met Lane. “We fell in love over a dead body.”
But it’s in Ruhl’s imaginings — creating a kind of American magic realism — that she really shines. “Life is about context,” a character says, and director Bill Rauch gives “The Clean House” a theatrical environment in which it can flourish, as it shifts from sitcom to Beckett, from soap opera to simply opera — and back again.
A scene in which Charles operates on Ana’s cancer is staged as a beautiful tango of love. (“I think he left his soul in me,” she says after the operation.) Another scene has Charles tromping through a snowstorm in Alaska in search of a cure for his beloved, an image simultaneously ridiculous and tender.
Well-placed subtitles also make their comic and human points, such as when Charles is first examining Ana in his office. “They fall in love,” reads the projection, followed by another: “They fall in love some more.”
Rauch’s clean, clear direction is aided by Christopher Acebo’s settings and Geoff Korf’s lighting, which give the scenes a sense of both the real and the surreal.
Kennedy evokes the grounded daffiness of a Mildred Natwick as Lane’s sister who always wanted something big in her life, although “I didn’t know how to ask for it.” Though Charles may be a character who doesn’t understand the punchlines to jokes, Bloom gives him an endearing childlike wonder that makes his seemingly arbitrary behavior believable and touching.
Mendoza gives Mathilda a delicious deadpan and strikes the playwright’s thematic notes with humor and grace. Barchiesi, who joined the cast just days before the opening, subbing for an ailing Carmen de Lavallade, evokes the perfect glow and generosity of spirit as the “impossibly charismatic” Ana.
Norment perhaps gives the most deft perf as Lane, evolving from a person of privilege to one who opens up her heart and home. Through Norment, we see how forgiveness, love and laughter are eminently translatable when spoken in the language of the theater.