When it comes to metaphors, there are fewer more deceptive than “The Clean House,” an existential truth wholly embraced by playwright, theater company, director, cast and crew in Remy Bummpo’s second production of its 18th season. What appears pristine and organized often belies a most painful chaos, while clutter and mess often represent a careless grasp of life’s priorities. Those who disengage and refuse to get a little dirty, miss everything.
I’ve written previously of Remy Bumppo’s status as Chicago’s best kept theater secret. While the company hardly toils in ignominy, it doesn’t enjoy the same sort of high profile affection of a Goodman, Steppenwolf, or Lookingglass. I’ve lost count of how many Bummpo productions I’ve reviewed for EDGE over the years, but there’s not a clunker to be found. The outfit produces consistently diverse, thought-provoking, quality work. “The Clean House” is no exception.
Written by Sarah Ruhl, a local Wilmette native made good, “The Clean House” was a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist with good reason. Remy Bummpo Artistic Director Nick Sandys says of the script, “Class, race and gender are absolutely linked to our understanding of the labor of cleaning. And cleaning, and those who clean, have been made invisible because we as a society would rather not deal with it.”
And so on queue, the first character audiences meet is Matilde (Alice de Cunha), a Brazilian domestic in the home of married doctors Lane (Patricia Egleston) and Charles (Shawn Douglass). In Matilde’s personal narrative, she is the love child of two comedic parents who found each other late in life, united by a quest to tell the perfect joke. Now orphaned, Matilde makes her living as a perversely indolent servant dedicated to locating the holy grail sought be her mother and father.
It’s immediately clear that the maid’s supreme funny, if ever arrived upon, would be wasted on her humorless, workaholic boss Lane. As inhabited by Egeleston, Lane is statuesquely WASPy, dedicated to her work and self-deception. She views her longtime marriage to Charles as one born of mutual respect and professional goals, a “clean” and virtuous model that renders a lack of time or passion perfectly logical.
Thus it’s no surprise when a yearning Charles falls under the spell of Ana (Charin Alvarez), a cancer patient who lives in the moment, both as a precedent and antecedent to her illness. She is beautiful, raw and even in the midst of stealing another’s husband, so full of love and honesty, even Lane is eventually disarmed. What’s clean about developing affection for your spouse’s mistress, who also by the way, steals Matilde’s services halftime? It’s a testament to Alvarez’s performance that this tension is completely authentic. For in the end, Ana embodies a raw, fragile fervor that most of the characters have sorely lacked.
If Lane has made a second career out of denial, her sister Virginia (Annabel Armour) knows exactly why she’s obsessed with “The Clean House.” It is clear that her marriage to a never seen husband is devoid of anything pleasurable. Virginia’s commitment to cleanliness in her home, as well as Lane’s, provides a sense of useful purpose. While Matilde entertains her with human interaction and conversation, Virginia does the secret dirty work that keeps this unorthodox family humming — until the return of Ana’s illness forces an end to counterfeit experience.
Though often described as a comedy, the second act of “The Clean House” is poignant and heartbreaking. For the besotted Charles who learns too late that man’s compulsive need to fix problems often prevents him from living in the moments remaining. For the finally awakened Lane who gives up on forcing experiences into neat little categories. For Ana, who is terminally ill, and for Matilde, who reaches the summit of her life’s work with unintended consequences. And even for Virginia, who must find a new place for herself after the dust settles (pun definitely intended).
Directed by Ann Filmer, this character study come Remy Bummpo production is a disorderly winner.