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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Clean House

There are things, big invisible things, that come unannounced -- they walk in, and we have to give way.— Charles
Jessica Hecht, Bernard White, Priscilla Lopez, Guenia Lemos, Jayne Atkinson(photo: Daniel Rader)
If laughter is indeed the best medicine as the cliche assumes, then a race to Williamstown Theatre Festival for Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House should be the next stop for anyone in need of deep belly laughs and knowing grins, as this fantastical two-act play swirls with the most unlikely set of elements unleashed upon an audience. Yet it works brilliantly as a whimsical study of such diverse topics as the meaning of dust, Portuguese jokes, soul mates, cancer, apple picking, and love-inspired inventions combine to exert a magnetic pull on the fabric of love.

2017 Tony Award winning director of Indecent , Rebecca Taichman, captures the contrasting issues and emotional disparities of Ruhl's play and runs her characters through this absurd comedy with verve and precision. The poignancy underlying each character's comedic persona is authentic and unmistakable. In spite of the preposterous predicaments of the script, we recognize the inept responses of human beings caught in fielding life's little curve balls.

Jayne Atkinson drives the show as Lane, a fastidious and successful doctor who has it all — the perfect career and surgeon husband. Her home is expensive, perfectly matched, and spotless — almost laboratory sterile. Red wine would never be served here. Dressed in a no-nonsense white pantsuit, Lane commands the stage and dominates, or thinks she does, a cast of very colorful (emphasis on color) characters.

The charming yet depressed Brazilian maid Mathilde (Guenis Lemos) hates to clean and spends her days creating the perfect joke which we only ever hear in Portuguese. Descended from a witty and loving set of parents, her quirky humanity and Latin temperament are magnified against the archly pristine Lane.

Virginia (Jessica Hecht,) Lane's well-educated but under-achieving sister, views cleaning house as her life's work and expounds upon such pithy matters as the meaning of dust: "If you do not clean, how do you know if you've made any progress in life?" Her deeply profound comments on dirt and furniture are delivered with the earnestness of a physics instructor weighting in on quantum theory. Lane, on the other hand, does not feel that housecleaning is worthy of a medical school graduate and announces it haughtily to anyone within listening range.

Virginia persuades Mathilde to allow her to clean Lane's house, which provides new meaning to her pedestrian life and lost aspirations. It also opens the door to an unlikely hilarious series of events. We discover that Lane's perfect life is about to unravel as her husband Charles (Bernard White) and his Latina mistress and former cancer patient Ana (Priscilla Lopez) introduce their unlikely instantaneous love affair into this absurd mixture.

Lane's almost pathological need for order is overtaken by the messy chaos and uncontrolled passions of her fellow, less inhibited humans. Atkinson's smugly arrogant Lane builds to outraged farcical bewilderment as the truth about her husband's genuine love for Ana, in the face of such imperfection, is revealed.

Priscilla Lopez is the earthy Ana whose Latin philosophy and zest for living is Lane's antithesis. For the first time in her life Lane's well-ordered existence has been usurped by the very messy passions of others. She is defenseless as logic and order hold no sway here; this is evident in one of the funniest "civilized" family discussions in the opening of Act ll, where Charles and Ana try to rationalize their "love at first sight" to a disbelieving Lane.

When Ana enters the picture Lane is baffled by everyone else's ability to accept with elan that Charles and Ana are a fait accompli. After alienating and rejecting everyone's attempts to assuage her, Lane languishes on her perfect white couch and imagines Charles and Ana's meeting and new love. Bewildered and heart-broken she must fight through layers of feeling to arrive at some sort of insight into her life and wreckage of her relationship.

As the actions of the characters increase in complexity their fates become intertwined with one another. Scenes from characters' imaginations appear and glide off so that the interior life and longings of Mathilde and Lane exist simultaneously in real time. A magical realism captivates the audience's sensibilities as we come to accept these trips into their innermost spiritual landscapes.

Charles takes on a crusade to find Ana's cure with the forcefulness of an old time explorer; he is so determined that the appearance of snow or large trees seems commonplace in the scheme of things. After all in the face of true love, heroic deeds are de rigueur. Lopez and White perform double roles in addition to Ana and Charles, as Mathilde's incredibly romantic parents and master joke tellers in their own right. Atkinson's clueless Lane is outstanding as witnessed in the scene where she mispronounces Mathilde's Portuguese name over and over with magnificent aplomb. We laugh at her flabbergasted response to a seemingly well-deserved comeuppance and cry along with her fathomless grief and loss.

Hecht's waif-like Virginia delivers fabulously funny insights with a woebegone nonchalance that masks the inability to claim her own life. Her gentle demeanor hides an anger which when unleashed creates a truly madcap scene in Lane's home.

Lemos as Mathilde, the charming and exuberant pseudo maid, is always at the ready to break the icy tension with a well-timed joke if anyone would care to hear it — after all, isn't that what she is there to tell us. Life often delivers a trick at our expense, if we could just catch the punch line. Sometimes it is in Portuguese so it takes longer to get, but that is what makes this a wonderfully engaging satire.

Riccardo Hernandez' majestic white set transitions into a wide expanse of sunlit sea and super-imposed titles provide translations when needed along with wry commentary. Costumes by Anita Yavich emphasize each character's predominant personality trait and the show's lighting by Ben Stanton manipulates the feeling and emotions which wash over us in this unconventional yet satisfying play.

The excellent cast work their magic in this sublime production where reality and surrealism collide to reveal deeper truths.

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The Clean House By Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Cast: Guenis Lemos (Mathilde) Jayne Atkinson (Lane) Jessica Hecht (Virginia) Bernard White (Charles) Priscilla Lopez (Ana)
Scene design: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume design: Anita Yavich
Lighting design: Ben Stanton
Sound design: Andre Pleuss
Stage Manager: Lloyd Davis Jr.
Running Time: Two hours, one intermission
Williamstown Theatre Festival Main Stage, Williamstown, MA
From 7/19/17; closing 7/29/17
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at July 22 performance

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