The Clean House, written by Sarah Ruhl, originally premiered in 2004 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Ruhl’s drama isn’t performed in Sydney very often, a notable exception was the wildly popular In The Next Room (or the vibrator play) at the STC in 2011, which like The Clean House, deals with life’s philosophical and ethical questions while appreciating the extreme humour that some of these questions pose. While the former relied on very straight, structured comedy interspersed with poignant drama, The Clean House shines in its brilliant ability to not take itself too seriously.
Workaholic doctor Lane (Mary-Anne Halpin) struggles with her South American cleaning lady Matilde (Keila Terencio), while Lane’s sister Virginia (Alice Livingstone) discovers Matilde’s dislike of cleaning. Matilde prefers telling jokes and is constantly trying to think of a killer punch line. In the meantime, Virginia begins cleaning the house, much to her sister’s disgust. Adding to the above role reversal and general chaos, Lane’s surgeon husband Charles (James Bean) falls in love with patient Ana (Colleen Cook), and all hell pretty much breaks loose. Ana is not only older, but she is also recovering from a mastectomy.
Stylistically, thematically and geographically The Clean House is a little all over the place. Normally in such cases I would say less is more (and more editing please), in this case, however, more was simply more and it was great. A simple stage in white had a stunning backdrop and an adjacent balcony where Mathide’s parents acted out their relationship in a series of flashbacks.
Performances were uniformly terrific, the unlikely story was carried out in both matter of fact (Mary-Anne Halpin) and mischievous (Keila Terncio) performances. Alice Livingstone is a revelation as the miserable sister Virginia, whose life has been in an unremitting downward spiral. She plays it very close to out and out dejection, then pulls back. Finely tuned yet explicit direction by Rosane McNamara reveals the ludicrous elements of the drama without compromising the legitimacy of the emotions of the characters.
Highlights? In the beginning of the second act when Charles, convinced that his finding love with Ana is his destiny, introduces her to Lane. A soap opera moment (complete with music from The Young and the Restless) was priceless. Finding your beshert (soul mate) is never an easy path and it seems even if you don’t follow Jewish law, it happens to all of us eventually, and for Charles there is nothing to feel guilty about, even if it does tear the family asunder.
Thinking of cleaning up after all of this? I think in the future I will heed Mathilde’s advice and if the floor is dirty, simply look at the ceiling.
The Clean House is on until 8 July, for more information and tickets see: https://newtheatre.org.au/the-clean-house/
Featuring: James Bean, Colleen Cook, Mary-Anne Halpin, Alice Livingstone and Keila Terencio.
Creative/Tech Team: Sarah Ruhl (playwright), Rosane McNamara (director), David Marshal-Martin (set & lighting design), Nicola Block (costume design), Tegan Nicholls (sound design, Tabitha Woo (assistant director), Emma Louise (dialect coach), Louise Fischer (production manager), Jo Jewitt (stage manager), Ricci Costa (stage manager/props coordinator) and John Van Putten (lighting operator).