As the audience wound its way into the seats of the Bonn Theatre, a “metaphysical Connecticut” (as the playbill explained) lay before them. A clean, white house-with harsh corners and no evidence of true inhabitation-waited on the stage, resembling the biting cold of the New England winter. This was the setting for the theatre department’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Clean House, directed by Billy McEntee, A&S ’14. The play left the audience crying, from laughter and heartbreak, as the show’s cast of five sought after the perfect joke, the perfect love, and the perfect performance.
The Clean Housetells the story of a doctor named Lane (Amanda Melvin, A&S’17), and her newly hired Brazilian maid, Matilde (Taleen Shrikian, A&S ’15). The play opens with Shrikian, bathed in warm light, telling what is clearly a very dirty joke in Portuguese. Following Matilde’s introduction, we meet Lane (Amanda Melvin, A&S ’17), who explains-in a straight monologue style that is repeated throughout the show-that for the past month her new maid has simply refused to clean, and her solution has been to put Matilde on antidepressants.
Lane is a very prestigious doctor at a very prestigious hospital and is the epitome of the Type-A personality, the kind often seen in O’Neill Library until 3 a.m., determined to write that perfect paper. As Billy so accurately described in his director’s note, “There are many Lanes on the Heights … we are intelligent students and fiercely diligent … but as with Lane this can sometimes mean intimacy takes a backseat to schedules.” Melvin, in her first year as a member of the BC theatre department, embraced Lane’s very adult anxiety, anger, and pain wholeheartedly, leaving the audience shocked as the occasional inadvertent F-bomb flew out of her carefully controlled mouth.
Lane’s new maid Matilde throws a wrench into her well-ordered life. Matilde is the child of the two funniest people in Brazil, but she was orphaned when her mother died laughing at her father’s joke. Matilde’s search for humor often gets in the way of her cleaning duties, along with beautifully choreographed sequences of her parents as she imagines them throughout the play. Shrikian portrayed Matilde’s dueling grief and love of humor with subtlety, picking up on the bittersweet reality of a young woman living out of her element.
Maisie Laud, A&S ’16, gave arguably the strongest performance in the overall incredible show, playing Virginia, Lane’s sister: a housewife who loves to clean-a trait she also develops with potent mixture of suffering and humor, since a house can be sparklingly clean only if it is empty. Virginia’s clean house is reminiscent of her empty life, with no job, no kids, and a husband who’s merely “adequate.” Laud highlights Virginia’s desperation as she offers to clean Lane’s house for Matilde, longing to be needed by her younger sister, even in secrecy. Laud endowed Virginia with the voice of everyone’s favorite great-aunt-her morbid streak comes out like the squeak of a mouse, and her timid interjections are perfectly timed. Virginia provides the perfect foil for her uptight sister and in the end is able to help Lane reconnect with her softer side.
Ruhl’s play contains an element of mystical realism, which allows for some of funniest moments of the play. For example, when the sisters were having a tense but perfectly cordial cup of coffee together, in an instant the lighting changed and a projection popped up on the screen saying “Lane and Virgina experience a primal moment in which they are 7 and 9 years old again.” The scene was reminiscent of Cady’s fantasies in Mean Girls, and ended as quickly as it had begun. These descriptive projections occurred throughout the play-for example, “Matlide tries to think up the perfect joke”-and add a fun glimpse into the characters’ inner lives.
The climax of the play comes when Lane’s long-absent husband, a surgeon named Charles, runs off with his mastectomy patient Ana, a much older woman. Charles and Ana (played by Joe Meade, A&S ’15, and Thais Menendez A&S’14, respectively) are perfect soul mates, madly in love from the moment they meet. Meade and Menendez create the textbook romance, having eyes for no one but each other and a magnetism that is almost palpable. So in love are Charles and Ana that they cannot imagine anyone, even the slighted Lane, being left out of their happiness, and they soon hire Matilde to work with them, splitting her time between their house and Lane’s. The two actors also play Matilde’s parents in her fantasies and beautifully express without words the love and laughter that the family used to share. Matilde’s grief over her lost parents is echoed by her present situation as she is torn between the two houses, a complex emotion that Shrikian eloquently displayed.
Lane’s psyche cannot handle the betrayal of her once-perfect husband. In one scene, she fires Matilde and pictures Charles and Ana having a romantic evening. As Matilde prepares to leave she turns and says, “Who are they?” clearly sharing Lane’s vision. Small moments of surrealism litter the play but are treated as run-of-the-mill incidents, making the imagined seem ordinary, such as when Charles throws his shirt from Ana’s balcony and it lands in Lane’s laundry basket below.
The essential message The Clean Houseconveys to audiences was the reality that cleanliness or simplicity are rarely what makes us happy in the end. When Ana’s breast cancer returns, each character must grapple with the reality of death and loss-a theme that recurs in many of Ruhl’s plays. Ana’s grace and strength stay with her to the end, even as Charles goes to extremes to keep his love alive. And Lane’s redemption comes in her willingness to accept the messy relationships of her life. A clean house does not always mean a happy house. Sometimes we have to get dirty-throw the apples off the balcony like Ana, or let our inner mess show like Virginia, or tell a dirty joke like Matilde-and live through the chaos. McEntee and his crew delivered a beautiful and powerful mess in The Clean House.