The term "catharsis" invokes a particular combination of purification, purgation, insight, clarity and cleansing that cannot be reduced to any one of those sensations. Aristotle used the word to describe the feeling of emotional release at the end of a good tragedy, but catharsis is also surprisingly close to the rush of recognition that comes with the punchline of a really good joke.
That little excursus does have a point. "The Clean House," the celebrated 2004 play by Sarah Ruhl '97 MFA'01, will be performed at Brown for the first time this weekend. Ruhl's work has appeared at Brown before (see Sock and Buskin's luminous 2007 "Melancholy Play"), but "The Clean House" is the central play in Ruhl's career so far, the work that brought her fame and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. So the current Production Workshop staging, directed by Emma Price '10, is important on a basic level in that it renews the connection between Brown and one of its most famous alumni artists.
But — and here's where that first paragraph becomes relevant — Price's strong production also gives audiences here the (overdue) opportunity to experience Ruhl's cryptically plainspoken play with its investigation of the cathartic possibilities of humor. Laughter is so close to tears that it can break us down and rebuild us and provide everything from a pint-sized epiphany to a seismic life-quake — thoroughly clean us out.
"The Clean House" is set in "a metaphysical Connecticut," in the antiseptically white home of Lane (Lily Mathews '12) and Charles (Alex Kryger '12), both doctors so preoccupied with work that they barely see each other. Lane has hired a Brazilian maid, Matilde (Sakina Esufally '13) to keep the house in order, but Matilde refuses to clean. It makes her sad, she says. The orphaned daughter of the two "funniest people in Brazil," she is preoccupied with her attempt to come up with the perfect joke. Her search repeatedly drives her into her own head, in scenes Price eloquently stages in half-light, with yearning violin music.
Enter Virginia (Abby Colella '12), Lane's sister. Cleaning palliates Virginia's feelings of disappointment and suburban desperation (which Ruhl — always sensitive to the complicated interplay of class in American society — treats with an appropriate amount of sarcasm), so she strikes a deal with Matilde and starts cleaning Lane's house in secret.
Then, without warning, Lane's marriage collapses. Charles has fallen in love with one of his patients, an older Argentinian woman named Ana (Ivy Martinez '10). He wants Lane to accept that he's found his soulmate and release him.
Like the child of a divorce, Matilde gets divided between Charles and Ana's household and Lane's, contributing jokes — in un-subtitled Portuguese — that delight the multilingual Ana and perplex WASPy Lane. Like the word "catharsis," Matilde's jokes only work in the original language. "It's not funny in translation," she explains. Over the course of the play, the implications of this line get played out. Ruhl's characters are surrealistically up-front with each other, trying to express exactly how they feel, but they constantly run up against the impossibility of communicating their feelings in words.
This combination of earnestness and concealment in Ruhl's dialogue is extremely difficult to get right, and Price and her cast do it well. Most of the time they find the register where the lines sound both obvious and elusive.
Where they really nail it, though, is in what are arguably the play's most affecting moments — the instants when language fails. Martinez, playing a cancer patient exasperated by hospitals, glows as she reduces litanies of medical jargon into "blah blah blah," and Mathews, as Lane, responds to her husband's betrayal with a red-faced wail situated exactly on the fragile border between laughter and weeping. Even the tightly wound and quick-talking Virginia ultimately snaps. Colella — who is fantastic throughout — finds a pitch-perfect laugh: apprehensive at first then manically uninhibited as she makes "a giant operatic mess" of Lane's house. The mask of order hiding the messy reality of this "clean house" comes crashing down as Colella runs rampant, tearing the set apart, her face shining with glee. Now that's catharsis.
"The Clean House" runs through Monday, with performances at 8 p.m. and an additional 2 p.m. performance on Sunday.