Chicago Theater Review: THE CLEAN HOUSE (Remy Bumppo at Greenhouse Theater Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 9, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

HUMOR CAN BE HOLY

When, earlier this year, I saw Bluebird Arts’ revival of Sarah Ruhl’s magically realistic domestic drama, I couldn’t grasp the buzz behind her successful whimsy. Yes, it had played Goodman Theatre and a previous production at the Athenaeum Theatre, but it seemed consumed by its own quirks.

Happily, a definitive delivery of Ruhl’s cunning mix of laughs and tears has just arrived with Remy Bumppo’s often transcendent production of The Clean House. It is, I see, a play that plays—and these tricks reveal some truths. Maybe it can’t or won’t prove that laughter is the best medicine—but a sense of humor plays a powerful part when tears fails to heal.

Shawn Douglass, Charin Alvarez, and Alice da Cunha in Remy Bumppo's production of THE CLEAN HOUSE. Photo by Johnny Knight.

This play thrives on contrasts that it lives to reconcile. We meet two Anglo sisters and two South American women, the former stereotypically obsessed with cleanliness and control, the latter romantics given to, well, life, love and laughter. A repressed self-cutter, Lane (the name is appropriately sexless) is a hubristic, type-A doctor (Patrice Egleston) married to another, Charles (Shawn Douglass), who seeks a soulmate who is not, alas, his wife. Lane’s sister Virginia (a delightfully dithering Annabel Armour) wants to make a difference in the world but, unlike Lane, it’s on a small-scale: She’s a compulsive cleaner (her own home by 3 p.m. and anyone else’s afterwards), an enemy to dust, and a mop’s best friend.

Annabel Armour, Patrice Egleston, and Alice da Cunha in Remy Bumppo's production of THE CLEAN HOUSE. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Lane’s putative cleaning lady is a Brazilian would-be comic named Matilde (Alice da Cunha), a waif on a mission. Her mind a whirl of set-ups and punchlines, she’s looking for the kind of perfect killer joke that could double as a sort of jovial euthanasia (her parents bonded through one-liners). This enigmatic, 27-year-old lady-child is presumably too depressed to tidy things up (“If the floor’s dirty, look at the ceiling!” she rationalizes). She is a conscious dreamer who is happy to leave her chores to a very willing Virginia.

Finally, there’s the “soulmate” Ana (captivating Charin Alvarez), an almost archetypal Argentinian mistress who, like Matilde, holds that “Love is dirty like a good joke” and life is a “telenovela” in progress.

Annabel Armour and Alice da Cunha in Remy Bumppo's production of THE CLEAN HOUSE. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Ana’s soul may be serene but breast cancer has hollowed out her body, turning her bones to pain. It’s here that the American doctors try to prove their worth, Charles by seeking a rare yew tree in Alaska, and Lane by letting Ana move in. In a vibrant tableau vivant, all four women connect through ice cream, affirmation and, finally, one lethal laugh.

Patrice Egleston, Annabel Armour, Charin Alvarez, and Shawn Douglass in Remy Bumppo's production of THE CLEAN HOUSE. Photo by Johnny Knight.

But any synopsis wrongly suggests a straightforward story. This is a wry work set in “a metaphysical Connecticut”: Ruhl’s infectious culture-clash concoction (what she calls “invisible terrains”) revels in strange stuff like clandestine underwear, apples that can be thrown from one setting to another, humor as next to godliness, traveling snowfalls, and characters conjured up by the merest anecdote. This organized, even stratified, mystery can seem precious at times, an imaginative overkill that appears overthought as well.

Patrice Egleston and Alice da Cunha in Remy Bumppo's production of THE CLEAN HOUSE. Photo by Johnny Knight.

But, playfully presented by director Ann Filmer, the mercurial make-believe is both artful and accessible (as Matilde’s three jokes in Portuguese are not). Armour’s pixilated Virginia, da Cunha’s genuine jester, Egleston’s slowly learning doctor, Douglass’s ardent philander, and Alvarez’ saintly non-survivor fit together even as their differences define and their similarities amaze. Both lived-in and lyrical, this is a 105-minute play that wants to be a poem. It could do a lot worse.

Patrice Egleston, Annabel Armour, and Charin Alvarez in Remy Bumppo's production of THE CLEAN HOUSE. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Human, not homeopathic, Ruhl’s “cure” for the antiseptic sterility of modern life is not just a feminist assertion of sisterly solidarity; it cleanses rather than cleans. Here that’s a dynamic difference.

Alice da Cunha in Remy Bumppo's production of THE CLEAN HOUSE. Photo by Johnny Knight.photos by Johnny Knight

The Clean House
Remy Bumppo
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Thurs – Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2:30
plus select Wednesdays and matinees
scheduled to end on January 11, 2015
for tickets, call 773.404.7336
or visit www.RemyBumppo.org

for more info on Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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