Late in Act One, a female physician and her maid watch as the doctor's husband ardently kisses an older woman. Who are they? the young maid innocently asks. My husband and the woman he loves, replies the distraught wife, who then reassuringly adds, Don't worry. It's only my imagination. In Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House, imagination is as pervasive as house dust. Everything about the play, which is opening this season's Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio series, feels fresh and zestful. It's tough to analyze The Clean House, but watching it can be as pleasurable as biting into a juicy apple.
Only four years ago, Ruhl was hailed as an "emerging" playwright. Today she is being produced everywhere, and it's easy to see why. Ruhl is a rule-breaker. She writes with the naiveté of someone who has never seen a play before, who doesn't know there are certain conventions to which writers are supposed to adhere. Stylistically her plot is all over the place. It is not strictly realistic, but neither is it surrealistic, and it is certainly not absurd. "Fanciful" might be an apt description. She writes scenes of high drama in which no one yells. She introduces us to likable people, sometimes caught in unhappy situations. If Ruhl has been influenced by anyone, she seems to admire Abraham Lincoln. She has created characters whose actions are determined by "the better angels" of their natures.
The Clean House plays out in "a metaphysical Connecticut." We are somewhere outside the real world, in an antiseptic home that might (and does) do double duty as a hospital operating theater. This is the abode of Lane (Andrea Cirie) and Charles (John Rensenhouse), two doctors who are too busy to clean the place themselves. So they've hired Matilde (Roni Geva), a young Brazilian who would rather tell jokes often in her native Portuguese than wash windows. Matilde is in pursuit of the perfect punch line. But she's also afraid that if she finds it, the joke might kill her (as in "die laughing").
Matilde is also a kind of seer. When Lane's sister Virginia (Carol Schultz) rationalizes her non-response to a joke by saying, "I'm laughing on the inside," Matilde ingenuously yet wisely replies, "I like it better when people laugh on the outside." At the outset of The Clean House, the audience is also laughing on the outside. The guffaws are plentiful. But by evening's end especially after Charles brings his new love Ana (June Gable) home to meet his wife the prolonged laughter has ceased, yet the audience continues to smile, even through the story's heartache, on the inside. By which point we come to sense that in Ruhl's world (or at least in Matilde's) a good joke equates to a life fully lived. In Ruhl's world, the quality of your life is not to be gauged by how clean your house is.
The Rep production, which has been directed by Susan Gregg, succeeds in illuminating a deceptively elusive script in which metaphor assumes its own reality. The unassuming Ruhl sets up several production problems; Gregg and designer Michael Philippi have solved them all. It makes sense that both the scenery and lighting were designed by the same person. Like the play's blurring of laughter and tears, it's hard to detect where the set stops and the lighting begins.
The cast serves the play well. As entertaining as these five actors were on opening night, their performances are only going to improve throughout the brief run, as audiences continue to tell the actors what this story is about. Certainly one thing it's about is the playwright's unbounded imagination. When Matilde imagines her parents dancing "They laugh until laughing makes them kiss. They kiss until kissing makes them laugh" we hear the lines with a sense of delighted surprise. The words are so obvious, yet no one ever has put them together in quite this way. Sarah Ruhl sees things most of us tend to overlook; The Clean House sweeps us to a world of refreshing originality.