by Sarah Wyatt
Young playwright Sarah Ruhl continues to gain widespread recognition for her play, The Clean House. She is emerging as a powerful presence in the American performing arts. The acclaimed and affecting comedy by the MacArthur genius grant recipient explores four markedly different yet intimately connected women and their varied attitudes toward order and cleanliness.
Ruhl recounted in American Theatre, “I was at a party full of doctors. A doctor walked in and said, ‘It's been such a hard month. My cleaning lady from Brazil is depressed and I took her to the hospital and had her medicated, and she still won't clean. And in the meantime, I've been cleaning my house. And I'm sorry, but I didn't go to medical school to clean my own house.’ I was fascinated and horrified by the political and cultural implications of the speech, but also by how transparently the woman laid out her case. It became the first monologue in the play.”
The Clean House recently made its West Coast debut at Seattle’s ACT Theatre. The witty and poignant comedy follows Lane, a successful and exacting American doctor, who believes her home should be spotless, but wants nothing to do with the cleaning of it. Mathilde, the Brazilian maid hired to clean Lane’s house, is completely uninterested in housecleaning. Her parents were the funniest people in their village and she is obsessively focused on her search for the perfect joke. Virginia, Lane’s sister, has a cleaning fetish and believes it immoral not to clean one’s own home. To Virginia, the act of housecleaning suggests connection with and control over one’s life.
Add to this cultural and philosophical collision the news that Lane’s surgeon husband, Charles, has fallen deeply in love with one of his patients, a dying woman infused with an undeniable and beautiful life force, and suddenly, Lane’s tidy, unemotional life is thrown into big, messy and very emotional upheaval.
“Traditionally women are assigned the role of cleaning up after men, and even in a household where both partners work, it's still often considered the woman's job to clean up after men,” Ruhl said. “There was actually an article in the New York Times where they measured how much time working men and women spend cleaning, and women spend twice as much time on household chores. So it's actually quantified now. If they can afford it, people wiggle out of the problem by hiring someone else to clean—so you have a gender problem, and then a class problem on top of it.”
Ruhl received a B.A. (1997) in English and an M.F.A. (2001) in playwriting from Brown University and was a Kennedy Center Fellow at the Sundance Theatre Laboratory (2000). In 2005, The Clean House had its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, shortly after Ruhl won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. The play has been produced at the Goodman Theatre in Ruhl's native Chicago, in London’s Actors Centre, and in New York at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
One doesn’t have to agree with all of Ruhl’s implications about domestic labor to appreciate the passion with which the script articulates them. Theatre critics have showered the play with praise, especially hailing Ruhl’s writing. New Haven Advocate says, “Passionate. Show-stopping. Daringly over-the-top and impressively consistent in its delirious excess.” “This comedy is romantic, deeply so, but in the more arcane sense of the word: visionary, tinged with fantasy, extravagant in feeling, maybe a little nuts," wrote The New York Times. The Orlando Sentinel said the script was "like opening a big, fat gift."
The Clean House runs through May 6 at the Seattle ACT Theatre.
Photo depicts Anne Allgood and Suzanne Bouchard in Sarah Ruhl's, The Clean House, at Seattle's ACT Theatre. Photo courtesy of Seattle ACT Theatre.
About the Author
Sarah Wyatt is a freelance travel and outdoors writer. A native of Iowa and a Native American, she holds a degree in Journalism and English. Wyatt has been a freelance writer for 11 years, with work appearing in Texas Monthly, Mother Jones and Theater Magazine.