Audiences find an entertaining home in Lean Ensemble’s ‘The Clean House’

Virginia (Jenny Zmarzly) discusses housekeeping with Matilde (Taylor Harvey), a maid who’d rather tell jokes than clean, in the Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House.”
Virginia (Jenny Zmarzly) discusses housekeeping with Matilde (Taylor Harvey), a maid who’d rather tell jokes than clean, in the Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House.” Submitted photo

A single actor, dressed in black and positioned in front of the minimally appointed architectural set done in various shades of white, offers a joke.

The joke is dramatically presented, artfully gestured and completely absorbing. We, in the audience, enjoyed every moment ... even laughed at the punchline.

The actor delivered the joke in Portuguese with a well-placed supertitle in English, something like, “Matilde tells a joke.”

That compelling moment in “The Clean House” was the perfect bellweather of the Lean Ensemble’s brilliant production of the award-winning play.

The play was created by playwright Sarah Ruhl and is directed by Blake White, the founding artistic and executive director of Lean Ensemble Theater, and acted by an experienced and talented cast of five: Ryan K. Bailer, Taylor Harvey, Karin De La Penha, Carolyn Popp and Jenny Zmarzly.

Ruhl wrote “The Clean House” in 2004 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005.

“The Clean House” can be described in many ways. It is a comedy that is funny, sardonic, quirky and filled with comic disbelief. But the play also takes on some of life’s most serious issues. The pursuit of the perfect joke provides us a parallel pathway toward approaching an understanding of the beginning of life and the end of life.

Ruhl’s script offers a storyline which, at once, is real, magical, literal, metaphorical and periodically bordering the supernatural. There are times when we are treated to knowing what the characters are imagining. Sometimes we believe what we hear or see, and other times we are open to question.

After the stage is set by the youthful Matilde (Harvey) who is mourning the death of her parents, she is reintroduced as a maid who has come from Brazil to Connecticut to clean house for Lane (Popp), a doctor. Lane, on the other side of 50, is married to Charles (Bailer), a surgeon, also on the other side of 50. We find, early on, that Matilde does not like to clean house. So when she meets Virginia (Zmarzly), Lane’s sister, a housewife also on the other side of 50, the two hatch a plan to put one over on the doctors — to save Matilde from cleaning and to delight Virginia with a new purpose in life, the responsibility of maintaining “The Clean House.”

Time passes. The house is clean, and the plan seems to be working.

Then things go dramatically awry when Lane finds that Charles is in love with a breast cancer patient, Ana (De La Penha), an Argentinian over 60, and he plans to live with her.

One of my favorite comedic moments comes when everybody — the wife, the other woman, the sister, the maid and the errant husband — is gathered in the Lane’s living room, and Charles is explaining that there is justice involved in his decision to leave Lane for Ana. He explains that he has found his soulmate, his “basherte” (destiny), which, according to Jewish law, requires that he go immediately to be with his divinely ordained spouse. Lane is quick to point out that he is not Jewish. He explains that he heard about soulmates on “public radio,” convincing all of the validation of his actions.

There are a series of resolutions, real or not-so much, as well as some obvious takeaways.

“The Clean House” will connect with audiences on many tiers, but I do think that all will recognize that Ruhl has created a spectacular script and that The Lean Ensemble Theater has delivered a wonderful night of theater.

Artist, musician, teacher and writer Nancy K. Wellard focuses on portraying and promoting the cultural arts, first in Los Angeles and, for close to 30 years, in the Lowcountry. Email her at

If you go:

What: The Clean House

When: 7:30 p.m. May 4-6; 2 p.m. May 7

Where: Hilton Head Preparatory School, Main Street Theater

To learn more: or call 843-715-6676