ABET’s 2018 production of THE CLEAN HOUSE by Sarah Ruhl | photographer: Susan J Roche | actors: Gretta Russe, Michael Ray
I met Sarah Ruhl when she visited my playwriting class at Northwestern. (She hails from nearby Wilmette, Illinois.) I don’t think I had a specific question for her, though others did — about process and production and research and agents and work-life balance. She had answers about how and who and when. But what I remember most was this moment.
The final question of the hour was posed by Stephanie, the classmate who talked most like a character in a Sarah Ruhl play and thus the most like Sarah Ruhl — soft and direct, light and precise. I was aware I was about to witness a duet scene; the air hummed a little before Stephanie tilted her head and said, “What is your husband like?” Ruhl was unfazed, but tilted her head, looked up, and pursed her lips, thinking before replying.
“Well,” she said mildly, and then with weight: “He’s a doctor.” “Ah,” Stephanie nodded. Yes, that explained it — it really did. I can’t remember if anything else was said.
It was weird and perfect, weightless and precise; there was a profound connection over a few words that had a deep world and wisdom behind them. It made me pay attention and give a little “Hm!” of laughter, deeply felt. Which is all just to say that it was utterly Rhulian. Verbal acupuncture. I envy that.
Forgive me, audience, for my sin as a playwright is that I labor my lines. They become constructed, cloying, clever… consonant. They sound like characters in a play, voices in a radio drama: “Look what’s happening! Look what’s about to happen!” I have to be careful about over-editing; I have to try hard to stay loose. I wouldn’t typically write a line like, “You should be with the ones you love until grapes grow dust on their purple faces,” unless grapes were a motif all this while. But Sarah Ruhl? She drops that phrase on me in EURYDICE, out of the blue, and in the surprise of something so strangely beautiful…? I am thinking of the grapes’ cool blush, their sweetness, the sweetness of life, the little things we don’t notice, and before you can say “William Carlos Williams”, I’m crying and I can’t quite tell you why. Is the line logical? Is my reaction absurd? Only if you haven’t been tuned to the same pitch as Eurydice, this girl leaving her father in the Underworld. Ruhl’s voice rings true to me as a tuning fork struck on a star1.
I don’t know Sarah Ruhl’s process — she may have labored over that line. The amount of space left on her anthology’s pages certainly suggests she doesn’t indulge any but the best, most necessary lines. Sometimes these are the least explicable (the setting for MELANCHOLY PLAY? “A metaphysical Connecticut”). Her characters state the strange, simple, and true in a way some may find twee, but I find fearless. In THE CLEAN HOUSE, there is plenty of this poetry, and it’s partnered gorgeously with the absurd lyricism of How People Really Talk. Which brings me to my favorite moment of the piece (spoiler ahead).
Ana and Charles explain their affair to his wife Lane and sister-in-law Virginia in the best way they know how: the appearance of one’s bashert, or soulmate, compels both to reshape their lives to accommodate the fact that they belong together — spiritually, physically, cosmically. To deny their pairing would be a greater sin for Charles than breaking the marriage vows he made in ignorance of Ana’s existence. The explanation is mystical, beautiful — but to justify it with a Yiddish word, an ancient Hebrew idea? “We’re not Jewish!” How do they even know about it? Through another shared religion: NPR. “I heard that episode, too!”
I love this moment because it’s a non-sequitur that makes sense. Of course these characters are NPR disciples. There is a whole world behind the words, a life that is peculiar; it doesn’t have to or maybe can’t explain itself — but it rings true. This is what I can say about Ruhl’s best work and good jokes. Which is why THE CLEAN HOUSE has both, making me laugh, cry, love, and envy every time.
1Paraphrased from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (another stylistic master).