Circa Theatre
June 13-July 11 | Reviewed by Melody Nixon

THE STRUGGLE of women trying to live life in the right way – “clean,” successful, happy or passionate – is played out over two chaotic Acts in Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, closing this week at Circa theatre. Ruhl’s contemporary exploration showcases the lowlights and highlights of the Western way of life for modern women. Isolation, extreme demands, longings and insecurities are played out through the mix of North and South American women who converge in quotidian circumstances that grow more and more bizarre as the play progresses. The Clean House’s self-deprecating humour is a good match for Susan Wilson’s dead-pan directing style. There is much to relate to in the oftentimes insightful and very entertaining script, which, perhaps just as much tragedy as comedy, leaves a lingering touch of darkness.

Collected and vital performances by Jude Gibson (Lane) and Michelle Amas (Virginia) hold the piece together well and provide a steady steer for the flightier performances of Erin Banks (Matilde) and Jane Waddell (Ana). But whereas Waddell seems liberated by her sensual character, Banks takes some time to relax into her role, which, to be fair, is a challenging one, with some taxing Portuguese monologues and bawdy jokes.

The interactions between these four very different characters form the backbone of what is, ultimately, a story about women helping one another to relate to (and is some cases, overcome) the disappointments of life as they mature. Their idiosyncrasies clearly demarcate one from the other, yet they commonly grapple with loneliness and despair. Lane (Gibson) strains to mix independence and job-success with love; young Brazilian cleaner Matilde (Banks) tries to, in a sense, make a career from love; and Lane’s sister Virginia (Amas) misses out on both. The wild-hearted woman from Argentina, Ana (Waddell), appears on the scene with a message of love and following the heart; but ultimately pays a high price.

Playwright Ruhl allows for some cultural depth in exploring the South American characters; however, they remain highly romanticised throughout the piece, acting as ‘inspiring’ and free-spirited figures without the same cares as the ‘burdened’ Westerners. One can’t help but feel stuck behind an ethno-centric lens, despite Ruhl’s intentions to politicise the position of the Brazilian house cleaner. A further disturbing point is the way in which Virginia, a disenfranchised housewife, is committed to a life of servitude. We are virtually encouraged to egg her on in her obsessive fits of cleaning. In contrast to the reversals in the lives of those around her, Virginia does not undergo personal transformation. In some ways the play’s greatest tragedy lies her story; rather than ambitious Matilde’s or big-hearted Ana’s; yet this tragedy does not seem deliberately placed.

The counter point for these four characters (and the butt of some knowing jokes) is Charles (Alan Lovell), the accomplished, ‘handsome’ husband who just needs someone to truly care for him. In the role of the deserter, Lovell comes across as a little awkward, enunciating his lines with too much self-consciousness and precision. Yet as adoring lover to Ana and Man/father to Matilde, Lovell has a natural ease. Both Lovell and Jane Waddell (as Ana and Woman/mother of Matilde) transmit a gentle and endearing chemistry.

The final scene of The Clean House brings a great despair that is quite rattling; the feeling of this scene lasts well after final curtain. Despair also lies in the ultimate tragedy of a play which, intended to be uplifting, contains a fair dose of desperation and confusion. The ultimate fate for Lane is ambiguous, in that the playwright intends us to empathise with her swallowing of pride, and her opening up to her husband – but that is by no means an objectively happy conclusion. Lane, it seems, has learned how to love – but at what cost? We get a sense that in many ways the two sisters, Lane and Virginia, will continue on as before, albeit touched briefly by the lives of two ethereal, sacrificial Latinas.

Despite these perturbations, Circa’s production of The Clean House does succeed, and succeeds vibrantly; and the play’s curious mix of betrayal and laughter makes for a lasting impression.