Review: “The Clean House”

Patrice Egleston and Alice da Cunha
Patrice Egleston and Alice da Cunha


Where: Remy Bumppo at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through Jan. 11. 2015
Tickets: $42.50-$52.50
Phone: 773-404-7336

Theater Critic

In the right hands, Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House” can be profoundly moving, even transformative. I remember a stunningly staged Goodman Theatre production several years ago that struck just the right tone for this devilishly difficult work and made me think and feel simultaneously.

Remy Bumppo’s production is only partway there—but it’s still quite affecting. The show benefits from the intimacy of the theater, which draws us into Ruhl’s magical and symbolic world, but that’s a double-edged sword. Grant Sabin’s scenic design suffers from some limitations due to both budget and space constraints, while inconsistencies in the acting and Ann Filmer’s direction seem more apparent close up.

The opening situation in “The Clean House” comes across as trivial, but it’s immediately apparent that cleaning is a metaphor that applies to the characters’ lives—and spirits—more than their homes. The goal of cleanliness is hard to achieve and may not even be all that desirable, Ruhl suggests, as messiness is what living is all about and everything can change in a instant. One of the biggest changes is death, and the play explores grieving with both eloquence and unexpected humor.

The first character we meet is the maid Matilde (Alice da Cunha), who is grieving for her parents. They were the funniest people in the world, she tells us, and her mother literally died laughing at one of her father’s dirty jokes. Her wish is to craft the perfect joke with as much power, and she treats us to some of her attempts—all in her native Portuguese.

Matilde has been hired by Lane (Patrice Egleston), a busy, uptight doctor, to clean, because she wants an immaculate house but doesn’t want to do it herself. Problem is, Matilde doesn’t like to clean, not so much because she’s in mourning, but because it simply makes her sad. Enter Lane’s sister, Virginia (Annabel Armour), who loves to clean because it makes her feel like she has control of her life and gives her a sense of purpose. She volunteers do the cleaning for Matilde on the sly, and the two become friends.

Bonding over Lane’s laundry, they also discover sexy underwear that implies Lane’s husband, Charles (Shawn Douglass), an important surgeon, is having an affair. Sure enough, Lane not only discovers the other two women’s ruse, they all find out that Charles has fallen in love, not with a younger woman as one would expect but with Ana (Charin Alvarez), a 67-year-old Argentine cancer patient on whom he operated. Rather than keeping the affair secret, he brings Ana home to meet Lane because, he says, he cares about her and wants them all to be friends. She’ll have none of it, of course, and they even argue over who Matilde—just fired by Lane—will work for, though Matilde agrees to split her time.

As Lane’s orderly life unravels, tensions erupt between her and Virginia, who has always felt felt like she’s been subsisting, unloved, in the shadow of her sister’s perfection. Meanwhile, Charles and Ana’s idyllic life in her balconied home by the sea hits a snag when her cancer recurs and she refuses to go to the hospital.

Charles, in one of the plot turns that defies normal reality, sets off to Alaska to find a rare curative yew tree, leaving Ana all alone. When her condition declines rapidly, Lane joins Matilde and Virginia as her caregiver, and the rapprochement among the women in the face of a crisis leads to the full-circle moment of Matilde creating the perfect joke that has the requested result followed by a ritual cleansing.

Besides having the characters deliver monologues to the audience, Ruhl breaks with the conventions of realism in a variety of ways to tell the story. Matilde “imagines” her parents young and laughing—portrayed by Douglass and Alvarez, thus connecting them to Charles and Ana—yet other characters can see them, too. Perched on Ana’s balcony, she and Matilde throw apples into the sea but they land in Lane’s living room. Snow falls in that same room, and we watch Charles trek across Alaska at the back of it.

The challenge for the director and ensemble is to find a style of acting that embraces the absurdities, captures the humor, communicates the subtext, and remains believable. At Remy Bumppo, the performers don’t all seem to be on the same page. Armour effectively conveys Virginia’s frustrations and suppressed anger, but she goes so far over the top that her obsession with cleanliness seems like a neurosis that requires medical treatment. At the other end of the spectrum, Alvarez’s Ana is the epitome of outer beauty and inner serenity that makes us truly understand why Charles falls in love with her, but she doesn’t look anywhere near 67 in an obvious silver-gray wig.

Douglass is understated as Charles, so I didn’t get much of a sense that he cared about Ana or Lane, and da Cunha only begins to plumb Matilde’s depths. Egleston’s Lane is the most convincing in the way she learns to let go and accept change.

The set’s shortcomings are twofold. Lane’s living room furnishings just aren’t as well-made and expensive-looking as they should be, and the set-up doesn’t lend itself very well to the special effects. For example, the makeshift platform from which the apples are thrown barely resembles a real balcony, and there isn’t enough room below to toss more than a few pieces of fruit. This may sound minor, but the effectiveness of the scene—of the surreal intersection of the two worlds—depends on the impact of the visual image, which is pretty much missing.

Still, Remy Bumppo’s version of “The Clean House” compensates for a lot of flaws with a very basic humanity and is worth seeing for that—and the fact that it’s a very good play.