sarah ruhl 1 essays “why i hate the word whimsy. and why i hate the word quirky”
Why are umbrellas so pleasing to watch on stage? The illusion of being outside and being under the eternal sky is created by a real object. A metaphor of limitlessness is created by the very real limit of an actual umbrella indoors. Cosmology is brought low by the temporary shelter of the individual against water. The sight of an umbrella makes us want to feel both wet and dry: the presence of rain, and the dryness of shelter. The umbrella is real on stage, and the rain is a fiction. Even if there are drops of water produced by the stage manager, we know that it won’t really rain on us, and therein lies the total pleasure of theater. A real thing that creates a world of illusory things.
I believe that there is often an idiomatic confusion in the phrase play of ideas. I think what people mean when they say a “play of ideas” is a play in which people talk about ideas. A talking-ideas play is different from a play where the idea is embedded in the form rather than in the conversation. It is a similar idiomatic confusion when plays are called language-driven that are actually driven by the use of large words. Some language-driven plays might use small words sparingly (Churchill or Fornes or Beckett) as the rhythm of the language is as important as the rarity or length of the words themselves. These playwrights use smallness in the service of bigness.
“The Clean House,” which is directed by Ann Filmer using a classy set design from Grant Sabin, is also a remarkably rich portrait of grief. Its central character, a Brazilian maid named Matilde (Alice da Cunha), who has a job cleaning the house of an uptight American doctor, Lane (Patrice Egleston), is mourning the loss of her parents (played, in flashback, by Charin Alvarez and Shawn Douglass). They were fun-loving people — comedians, Matilde tells us. They were fun and loving, but their gags of choice were dirty. And much of the action of “The Clean House” involves Matilde teaching her employer and that employer’s needy sister Virginia (Annabel Armour) about the virtue of the messy. Matilde does, though, believe in the cleansing power of the joke.
Playwright Sarah Ruhl, who grew up on Chicago’s North Shore and has enjoyed a long and extensive relationship with several Chicago theaters, has published a new book of prose, “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write.” One entry in that charming volume is especially telling: “Why I hate the word whimsy. And why I hate the word quirky.”