The Elden Street Players presents The Clean House, a thought-provoking comedy by Sarah Ruhl. Director Susan Devine has a tall order with this play, as it covers a broad spectrum of emotions, from whimsical and playful to deeply emotional and poignant. Thanks to solid direction and a talented cast, this intimidating feat is successfully delivered.
Set Designers Bob Bell and Susan Devine create the interior of a beachy townhouse, with decorative shells and starfish and a sofa lined with a neat row of pillows — all identical except for the colors, which begin at the deepest blue and then gradually fade to its lightest hue. There are three levels for the actors to use — a carpeted floor, smooth tile, and wooden boards used for a seafront balcony. A large white curtain is used as a backdrop, throughout which memories and imaginings are cleverly shown from behind them, veiled and emblematic, like their subject matter. These scenes are accompanied by a soft orange hue by Lighting Designer Ian Claar, who also utilizes spotlights for the more personal, serious moments.
Sound Design by Anna Hawkins and Susan Devine use effects such as ocean waves and Spanish music, and Costumer Melissa Jo York-Tilley reflects the character’s personalities through their clothes. A grieving, unhappy maid wears all black, a successful doctor wears business-casual, and a prim, cleaning-obsessed housewife wears belted dresses and stark-white shoes.
The plot begins with a frustrated doctor – Lane – (Karen Jadlos Shotts ) who cannot understand why her Brazillian live-in maid – Matilde – Jackie Davis has stopped cleaning her house. While Lane is away, Matilde explains her situation to the audience — she is mourning her recently deceased parents, and she absolutely loathes cleaning houses. The daughter of two hilarious individuals, Matilde once studied comedy and yearns to think of the perfect joke, which is impossible under her current sober circumstances.
Enter Lane’s obsessive-compulsive neat-freak sister, Virginia (Lorraine Magee) whose boring existence as a childless housewife leaves her feeling unfulfilled. Virginia and Matilde make a secret arrangement — that Virginia clean her sister’s house without her knowing, while Matilde uses the newfound time to try and create the perfect joke. The irony here is amusing, as Matilde, the self-proclaimed “funny one,” is surly and dour, while strict Virginia, who “hates to laugh,” receives the most applause from the audience through her nit-picky antics.
The overall lighthearted nature of the show lulls you into a false sense of security before shocking your system with life’s deepest subject matter, including infidelity and musings about love and loss. Virginia becomes suspicious when, while doing laundry, she discovers racy underwear that her sensible, professional sister would certainly not buy. Is Lane’s husband Charles (M.K. Turner) having an affair? Donna Naybor is great as the effervescent Ana, a woman who bursts into their lives and leaves a lasting impression.
Relationships are at the core of this production — what creates and sustains them, what fractures them, and how strong they can really be. Muses Matilde, “People imagine that people in love are happy. Love isn’t even like that, it’s dirty…like a good joke.” An especially deep and emotional ending leaves you thinking about your own relationships, and the things that bind them.
The Elden Street Players’ The Clean House will have you laughing through your tears.
Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
The Clean House runs through November 10, 2012 at The Elden Street Players at The Industrial Strength Theatre – 269 Sunset Park Drive, in Herndon, VA. For tickets, call (703) 481-5930 or order them online.