Chicago Theatre Review
Embrace the Dirt
The Clean House – Remy Bumppo
The play opens with three women taking the stage in succession, each delivering a monologue. The first is a young Brazilian housekeeper, telling a dirty joke in Portuguese; the next, is a middle-age doctor explaining that she demands her house to be spotlessly clean but, since she doesn’t like cleaning, she’s hired a Brazilian girl to do it; last is the doctor’s sister who not only shares her sibling’s passion for a clean house, but she enjoys doing the cleaning. These three women, Matilde, Lane and her sister Virginia, are the cornerstones of Sarah Ruhl’s award-winning 2004 romantic comedy that playfully addresses some serious topics.
Seen in flashbacks, Matilde’s parents, filled with the joy of living, have become her role models. However, they’ve both recently passed away, so the young girl has relocated to America to be a housekeeper. The only problem is that she hates cleaning. What Matilde really wants is to do is become a standup comic and write jokes, like her parents. She says directly to the audience, “I think heaven is a sea of untranslatable jokes, except everyone is laughing.”
Lane is an uptight, anal-retentive woman in her 50’s who likes to control every element of her life and wants everything about it to be perfect. When she discovers that Virginia, whose one pleasure in life is creating order out of chaos, has secretly been doing the cleaning for Matilde, she explodes. No sooner discovering this deception, Lane also learns of another: her husband Charles, also a surgeon, is having an affair with one of his patients. His liaison isn’t with a beautiful, sexually attractive younger woman, which Lane might understand, but with Ana, his middle-aged cancer patient, who’s more spontaneous and full of life than Lane. Ana also happens to be Brazilian, like Matilde, so the two get along beautifully. Ana ends up taking in both Charles and Matilde so that all three can enjoy the kind of life the universe intended.
Sarah Ruhl’s quirky unconventional comedy overflows with universal truths hidden within a wacky, off-the-wall story. It’s peopled with strange but lovable characters. Her play sparkles with life and with the unexpected. It’s also unique and refreshing in a play to meet so many characters over the age of 50; they’re all interesting, complex and very likable people, as well, and played by a cast of talented, engaging actors.
Alicia da Cunha’s Matilde is the glue binding the rest of these characters together. With her optimistic view of the world, Ms. da Cunha finds humor in even the most sorrowful situations and she spreads her joy to everyone around her. Annabel Armour is outstanding as Virginia. The actress‘ dry delivery and wide-eyed, innocent reaction to those who don’t see the personal satisfaction to be found in cleaning is both funny and charming. Sweet and pliable, where her sister is brittle and closed off, Ms. Armour is a delight. Charin Alvarez creates a lovely Ana, a character whose view of the world is mature and down-to-earth. Even facing cancer, Ms. Alverez’s character finds the joy and excitement buried within everyday events. Charles, as played by Shawn Douglass, is a man who’s been desperately yearning for some fun in his life. Finally finding excitement and adventure with his patient, Mr. Douglass brings a childlike thrill to his new life with Ana. Ms. Egleston’s Lane is a sad, rigid and pragmatic woman confused by the freethinkers inhabiting her world. The actress journeys from an uptight character with hard surfaces to a more accepting, freethinking woman who finds happiness in her newly discovered vulnerability.
All of this can be attributed to Ann Filmer’s subtle direction, gently guiding her actors between Ruhl’s alternating waves of realism and reverie. Staged upon Grant Sabin’s sleek, modern, white-on-white living room set which, during the second act, opens up to also reveal Ana’s balconied home, is the perfect visual metaphor. The upstage features an open area that provides space for the play’s many flashbacks. Charles Cooper’s lighting also enhances the shining sparseness of the story, while Janice Pytel’s lovely costumes provide another dimension to each character.
Playful, whimsical, quirky and delightfully entertaining, Sara Ruhl’s romantic comedy is perfectly staged and brilliantly acted in Remy Bumppo’s engaging new production. Instead of sweeping away all of the dirt, this play shows how a little bit of dust can eliminate boredom and offer some grit, substance and fun to life. Too much order and cleanliness is sterile and uninteresting, but a little bit of dirt provides those memorable moments we treasure most.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 3-January 11 by Remy Bumppo at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the Greenhouse box office at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.RemyBumppo.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.