The Clean House is comedy that is “polished”, “superb”, and “bitingly funny” on stage in Toronto
After seeing the opening night performance of Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, now playing at Alumnae Theatre, my companion put too much hot sauce on her Pad Thai. Tears streaming down her face, she assured me, “I’m crying, but I’m happy.” After a moment of careful consideration, she continued, “like the play.” It was a fitting statement, as The Clean House is a bitingly funny comedy with a wounded, glorious heart underneath; it’s a wonderfully, startlingly human play about weird love, family, devotion, class, and the funniest joke in the world.
Matilde (Marina Moreira) is the Brazilian live-in maid to doctor Lane (Andrea Irwin) and surgeon Charles (Neil Silcox), but cleaning makes her sad, so she’s stopped. She would rather be thinking up or telling jokes in Portuguese, a quality she inherited from both her parents, the two funniest people in her village (she was third). Imperious Lane is desperate for the most sterile house possible, as long as someone else does the dirty work; “I did not go to medical school to clean my own house,” she sniffs.
On the other hand, Virginia (Annemieke Wade), Lane’s sister, revels in cleaning a little too much, as it gives her the only modicum of much-needed control over the housewifely world that she embraced post-Bryn Mawr. Her need to insinuate herself into her sister’s life leads to a brokered deal with Matilde: Virginia will secretly clean house, and Matilde will make jokes.
In the midst of this, they find some unexpected (literally) dirty laundry, as Charles has unexpectedly encountered his bashert (soulmate) in the form of mastectomy patient Ana (Lilia Leon), and his guileless and earnest revelation of this shakes the household’s foundations.
This is not really a play about infidelity, but about the line between laughter and pain, and the funny world of love and relationships, particularly between the four very different women. They are women who can simultaneously be rivals, yet fiercely protective of each other; women who are flawed but inherently decent human beings with nuanced motivation.
This means that nobody is truly a villain in this tale. Though there is certainly friction, it’s all tempered by an easy humanity, as the characters form an unusual but symbiotic family that goes from “telenovela” (in Matilde’s words) to something that focuses on support rather than betrayal and passes the Bechdel Test with aplomb.
In the same vein, the set, initially rigid and stark white, later becomes much more fluid. The barriers between different locations break down, underscoring the theme of both metaphoric (between imagination and reality) and emotional (between the characters) barriers being stripped away.
Ruhl is known for her surreal stage directions, and director Richardson projects choice ones onto the set, letting us fully appreciate some of the more unstageable emotional moments. This turns subtext in text, whether it involves chopping down yew trees in Alaska in a scene out of a “Scott of the Antarctic” movie, or experiencing primal childhood emotions. The show could be categorized as quirky and absurd, but the quirk is there for a reason, not for the sake of quirk. It’s dramatically interesting and thematically relevant.
The cast is uniformly polished and superb. Irwin’s Lane is a masterclass in painful, uptight control that gradually unravels; all intense eyes and closed off expression, she literally and figuratively begins to let her hair down as her life, and the cleanliness of her house, begins to disintegrate. The multiple ways she mispronounces Matilde’s name, for example, speak as much about her impressions of class and role as the script does.
Moreira manages to maintain a curiously deadpan sparkle, making even untranslatable jokes interesting, and daring you to think about the inner lives of society’s servants. Wide-eyed Wade’s manic energy helps you appreciate the beauty of dust, and Leon’s fire makes it easy to see how she can be so easily loved and forgiven. Silcox projects a charming aura of naïve intensity; my only quibble is that this makes him seem a little young for the role, which might make the over-the-top actions of a man in sudden, intense love seem even more silly.
However, The Clean House is no joke. Instead, it’s a beautiful, delicate play where absurd statements hold concrete meaning, and laughter and tears mingle: where a joke can be funny enough to kill.
- The Clean House is playing at Alumnae Theatre (70 Berkeley St.) until April 22, 2017.
- Performances are Friday through Saturday at 8:00PM with matinees on Sundays at 2:00PM.
- Tickets range from $10-20 (with Pay What You Can Sundays) and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at (416) 364-4170.
Photo of Andrea Irwin, Marina Moreira, Lilia Leon and Neil Silcox by Bruce Peters