Eugene Weekly : Theater : 3.18.10


Clean Not Crisp
The VLT takes on Sarah Ruhl’s popular play
by Anna Grace

Kathy James La Montagne and Lizzie Malarkey in Clean House. Photo by Rich Scheeland.

A Clean House is a fabulously imaginative play about earthy issues. Lane, an absolutely, successfully, physically perfect person (well-cast Jennifer Sellers) comes to an impasse when her live-in maid gets depressed and refuses to clean and her perfect-doctor husband falls madly in love with one of his cancer patients.

This is Eugene’s second staging of Sarah Ruhl’s fantastical comedy in a year, following last spring’s production at Lord Leebrick (VLT scheduled it before knowing the Leebrick’s schedule). While it is well worth the second viewing, the VLT production shares similar problems with last year’s, making me wonder if the faults lie with the players or the playwright.

This production is long on talent and creativity but short on polish. Director Wade Hicks offers a fresh production full of humanity, played out on a brilliant set with some of Eugene’s favorite actors. Original music by wunderkind Brandon Scott Rumsey pulls the audience through the raw as well as the ridiculous. Yet the production lacks the crisp edges this play needs. Laundry is folded poorly, kisses are lip-shallow, apples are tossed too carefully but still roll off into the audience. Virginia (Nancy West) is not costumed like the neat freak drowning in her own obsessively clean wasteland that she so ably portrays. But these little mistakes are not where the ultimate problem with this production lies. The problem is act two.

The last half of this remarkable play can be simultaneously absurd and slow. I marvel at Ruhl’s imagination, but I am unable to suspend my disbelief for her flight of fancy. Of the rapidly twisting plot, Brazilian maid Mathilde (delightful Lizzie Malarkey) declares, “This is like a telenovela!” That line may be the key to unpacking the difficult second act. Like a Spanish-language soap opera, when the plot veers into the absurd, the characters need to follow, full steam ahead. Each character should grow in strength and stretch past the bounds of reality along with the action. The fault in the productions I’ve seen is the choice to bring the characters down to earth. Yes, we can relate to them there, but it is a place they simply don’t belong. Still, how many of us have seen our own lives veer out of control past all reasonable imagination? While uncomfortable, the second act speaks to many adults.

But even if it doesn’t all quite click, A Clean House is creative, smartly written and seriously funny. I loved the second chance to see it.

A Clean House continues through March 27 at the VLT. Tix at or 541-344-7751.