Neat Homes, Messy Lives

“The Clean House,” by hot, young playwright Sarah Ruhl, makes its Santa Barbara debut as the season-opening selection from Ensemble Theatre Company this weekend. Ruhl is a recent MacArthur Fellowship "genius grant" recipient and a finalist for the Pulitzer for this 2004 play, set in the tidy New York apartment of a doctor where the home is a lot less messy than the lives being lived in it.

ETC tapped former Santa Barbara resident Jenny Sullivan, one of the founders of the summer solstice celebration and a 25-year veteran of theater from here to Los Angeles and beyond, to direct this quirky comedy that uses modern domesticity to dissect issues of life and love.

Q. What about the play appealed to you?

A. I was so moved when I first read it and I was moved again when I saw it in New York last winter. But it’s been really hard to pinpoint the why of it. There’s something really life-affirming about the play and it’s entertaining and it’s magical and it speaks deep to my soul, I don’t know how else to say it.

Your last show at ETC, “Memory of Water,” was all women and this is a play with four women and one man is there…?

A theme? Well I did just direct “Hamlet” which is a lot of men. But I’ve directed a lot of plays with women, including a year and a half where I put all the women in the “Vagina Monologues.” So I don’t know, but I am feeling really lucky to be working with this absolutely amazing cast. These women, three of whom I never directed before, are just divine and my guy, he just keeps saying this is the most fun I’ve ever had so there’s something good going on there.

Tell me a bit about the casting, please.

One of the things that was fun about the auditions was that I had everybody tell a joke because that’s what the playwright specifically says: that all the actors should be able to tell a joke… She said it “cleans out the insides.”…

Are there characters that you identify with, the situations they’re going through?

I identify with all of them. There are bits and pieces of the characters I connect with. Mathilde is really destined to have a past and a chore and a human connection, and I thrive on that. I wish I was as clean and tidy as Virginia but I try to be but I’m not. And Lane, who is sort of obsessed with wanting order in her life and just wanting to get on with what she does, I get it. Anna who wants to live and die with great authenticity and grace, I like to think that I have those feeling in myself.

This is still a new and very young play, do you feel like maybe the definitive version hasn’t been done yet and there’s room for interpretation?

We’re finding our own way into the material even though we have somebody in the production who’s done it before. She’s talked about it only if we push her because she wants us to figure it out on our own. The writer is truly a poet. It’s a very clean, lean play and she leaves a lot open for the imagination but if you overdo it in any way, it gets in the way of the play, so the design and setting has to have the same kind of precision and clarity as her writing….it’s about the rhythm and the timing. It’s meant to have a lot of humor and it’s also an extremely emotional play so it’s a very delicate line.

What do you think you’ve learned about yourself or about anything in the process of rehearsing the play and what do you hope audiences will take away with them from seeing it?

That life is messy and if you embrace that messiness there is a chance for incredible learning. To not try and brush the dirt under the rug, that maybe it’s there for a reason to figure out why it’s in your life.

“The Clean House” opens Thursday, September 27 and runs through October 21; please call the box office at 805-962-5365 for ticket information and show times.