Skip to content

Rants, Raves and Reviews: House Cleaning or Cleaning House

The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Steven Schipper
Vancouver Playhouse
Oct 21-Nov 11 2006.

VANCOUVER, BC: I'll admit my bias right up front. I thought Lane was the only character in this play with any semblance of integrity. And it is not just because she is a female doctor at a "very good" hospital who has devoted her life to her patients. Or because I wished I could look as gorgeous and "together" as Susan Hogan did after a grueling day at work. Or because I really loved her house and her elegant modern furniture. Nice set, John Thompson, it's my kind of home.

Here's the story. Lane (Susan Hogan) is a doctor, married to Charles (Andrew Wheeler), a surgeon, whom she met while still a medical student. They both work long exhausting hours at a major hospital. Lane employs Matilde (Sarah Henriques) a young Brazilian girl, as a live in house cleaner. Matilde does not house clean- she prefers to spend her time inventing the perfect joke. Since her mother died laughing at the perfect joke invented by her father, who promptly shot himself, I am not quite sure why she wasn't turned off from humour for life.

Be that as it may, enter Virginia (Patricia Hunter), Lane's sister who didn't want to bring children into this nasty world, has made a "career" out of being a housewife and has now nothing to do after she finishes cleaning her own house by around three in the afternoon, every day. Charles whose hormones are obviously making him crazy (or do you think he was taking Viagra?) falls instantly and inexplicably in love with his new patient, Ana (Nicola Lipman) from Argentina, who has breast cancer, demands an immediate mastectomy and then refuses further medical treatment. Lane is expected by everyone else to prove her "compassion" by accepting Ana into her home and then looking after her while Charles is off on a crazy quest to get yew bark to cure Ana's cancer. Proves my point about crazy Charles, right?

It is seldom that I leave a theatre in such a state of ambivalence. I enjoyed the production - I think. I was left feeling confused and at first could not figure out why but I think one reason is related to the theme of humour in the play. Because of the disconnect between the comedy and the rest of the subject matter (marriage breakup, cancer, depression, death) I felt a sense of disquiet. So I guess the techniques that Ruhl employed to make us think about contextual and cultural aspects of humour worked, on me at least, but made the play seem very superficial and unsatisfying.

That superficiality was enhanced by the unrounded characters of Charles and Ana. We learn enough to sort of understand what makes Lane, Virginia and Matilde tick. But although Wheeler and Lipman do a lot with very thin material, Charles's behaviour still comes across as completely bizarre and Ana is more sad than femme fatale. Really, in what way is Ana more alive than Lane? Because she sings, dyes her hair pink and speaks Spanish? Because her balcony has a view of the water? We are not shown much that illuminates Ana's mysterious "life-force", the inner energy that elegant, attractive, competent, Lane apparently lacks. By the way why is it that competent successful professional women are so often labeled cold or lacking in compassion or my favorite description - intimidating? Think Cybil Shepherd and that Martha Stewart movie.

So my take home message from the play goes something like this. Make sure your daughter has a self supporting career that she enjoys so when her husband has his mid-life crisis she can look after herself fine. And so that she doesn't have to talk to her cutlery to make herself feel worthwhile.