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'The Clean House' by Sarah Ruhdl

The current production at the IU's Wells Metz Theatre is of MacArthur Fellowship winner Sarah Ruhl's comedy The Clean House in a smartly designed and acted production directed by Jonathan Michaelsen.

In the story there are a couple of hard working married doctors played by Molly Casey and Alex McCausland. They've hired a Brazilian maid, Stephanie Feeley, who hates to clean. She dreams of becoming a standup comedian. The wife's sister, Abby Rowold, loves to clean and dreams of finding a meaningful project to fill her life. The husband falls for a patient, Alana Cheshire. From this outline, The Clean House could be a mad cap comedy or even just a soap opera,

But Ruhl's setting is "A metaphysical Connecticut" and she's quite ready to offer a script with plenty of things that are beyond the physical or at least quirky. Just for a starter, the show opens with the maid telling a long, gesture filled joke. We knew it was a joke because the screens on the sides of set designer Katie McDermott's smartly upscale living room said so. No one laughed because the joke was in Portuguese. Throughout the play those screens supplied bits of needed information and little commentaries that both framed and distanced scenes.

Several scenes are little lyrical vignettes of imagination. The maid's imagining of her parents' tango dancing and her mother enjoying a joke so much that she literally laughed herself to death was a dark one. A moment of anger between the wife and her sister translated back to when they were nine and seven and went at it with lust hair pulling and even biting had a fresh tension. The wife's imagining of her husband's loving relations with the patient, an image that even the maid could see also worked nicely.

I'm still puzzling over a set of scenes late in the play when objects from the patient's roof top terrace, supposedly blocks away, are dropped into the couple's living room. The patient and the maid toss apples off the terrace. They're real apples and the wife even hears them hit on the floor of her living room, but after reacting to the initial impact just ignores them.

As I said earlier, the basic story could be a mad cap comedy or a soap opera. Frankly in terms of character development or emotional depth it's not much beyond that. But Sarah Ruhl is a real student of the theatre and this is a thesis piece and a well worth seeing demonstration of her understanding and powers.

The Clean House in IU's Wells-Metz Theatre continues with Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening performances and a Saturday matinee.

By the way Sarah Ruhl's Broadway debut is currently in previews in New York.

The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl

Indiana University Department of Theatre and Drama

October 23, 24 and 17-31, 2009

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