Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House played at the Varscona the same week in March as Dirt was playing at TACOS Space across Whyte Ave. I wasn’t the only reviewer to notice this coincidence, but the other ones all beat me to posting about it.
The Clean House covered some serious topics but with a very light touch. The cast was all female except for Troy O’Donnell, who played a couple of minor characters. Elena Porter was enchanting as a housecleaner from Brazil who wants to be a comedian. Liana Shannon and Coralie Cairns play sisters Lane and Virginia, who have different priorities but who are both fussy and not very happy, making justifications for their unhappy marriages. Shannon Boyle played a couple of characters who seemed minor at first, but one of them later became very important in the story. Porter and Boyle both spoke English with accents from South American countries, and also spoke Portuguese sometimes. I wished my Portuguese-speaking friend could have been there.
The set was mostly white, furniture, window frames, and props, with most of the characters dressed in crisp tidy neutral tones. The sisters, a surgeon and a full-time homemaker, both had constrained body language and I don’t think they ever touched each other. “Think of her as a patient, not a person” Virginia counsels Lane, who is uncomfortable giving orders to her cleaner. Elena Porter’s character Mathilde wore comfortable black clothing and seemed much more comfortable with her emotions and her environment. So by comparison, her emotions seemed much larger than appropriate in the sisters’ world, grieving for her dead parents and celebrating her joyful childhood with parents who were always making each other laugh. We saw her parents dance and laugh and touch affectionately in memory sequences, as represented by O’Donnell and Boyle. And Mathilde told the two women of her quest to remember the “perfect joke” that her father had created and told to her mother, leading to her mother’s death from laughing.
Gradually, the controlled lives get out of control, as we find out that Lane’s husband Charles (O’Donnell) is leaving her for Ana, a South American geologist (Boyle), and then that Ana is dying. Charles’s response to this news is mostly to disappear, ostensibly in search of an obscure cure, while the other women care for Ana. The ending had me in tears but not completely sad ones. It was lovely.