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The deceptive lightness of being in Sara Ruhl’s ‘The Clean House’

In her lovely new book, “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write,” the Wilmette-bred, Brooklyn-based playwright Sara Ruhl muses on the notion of lightness. As she explains: “A suspicion that lightness is not deeply serious (but instead whimsical) pervades aesthetic discourse. But what if lightness is a philosophical choice to temper reality with strangeness, to temper the intellect with emotion, and to temper emotion with humor. Lightness is then a philosophical victory over heaviness. A reckoning with the small and the invisible.”

In many ways, “The Clean House,” Ruhl’s exquisite play — now receiving a revelatory production by Remy Bumppo Theatre — is a perfect illustration of this philosophy of lightness. At moments laugh-out-loud funny, more often than not absurd yet wholly recognizable, and by the end, profound beyond all expectations, it possesses all the qualities of a helium balloon that can suddenly exert the most powerful gravitational pull.

‘THE CLEAN HOUSE’

Highly recommended

When: Through Jan. 11

Where: Remy Bumppo at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln

Tickets: $42.50-$52.50

Info: (773) 404-7336; www.RemyBumppo.org

Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with one intermission

Ruhl’s play defies easy description. A chronicling of all that happens in it — love, loss, sickness, betrayal, friendship, mortality and more — cannot possibly suggest the alternately blunt and magical spirit with which it unfolds, generating laughter and tears in rapid succession. As for the sleight-of-hand with which Ruhl reminds you that life is a joke (one that, in the best case, leaves you laughing yourself to death), well, that is what makes this playwright so special.

I first saw “The Clean House” at the Goodman Theatre in 2006, but this production, superbly directly by Ann Filmer, fully blossoms in the more intimate confines of Remy Bumppo’s Greenhouse Theater Center space. It is primarily the story of the relationships among four women, although the single male in the cast is the catalyst for much self-examination.

The story unfolds in the spotless, minimalist, white-on-white home of Lane (Patrice Egleston), a tightly controlled, highly accomplished doctor, and her husband, Charles (Shawn Douglass), a workaholic surgeon. (Grant Sabin’s sleek set is ideal.) Lane has recently hired a maid, Matilde (Alice da Cunha), a young woman from Brazil who speaks to us in animated Portuguese. But Matilde, whose beloved parents died recently, hates cleaning. Like her late father, she is a comedian at heart, and her passion is the quest for the perfect joke.

Alice da Cunha plays Matilde in the Remy Bumppo production of Sara Ruhl’s “The Clean House.”
Alice da Cunha plays Matilde in the Remy Bumppo production of Sara Ruhl’s “The Clean House.”

While Matilde hates cleaning, Lane’s sister, Virginia (Annabel Armour), finds the process a crucial link to sanity. A woman who might have been a scholar but could never quite negotiate the wider world, Virginia is in a tedious, childless marriage, and finds her only real satisfaction in dusting, vacuuming, ironing and the rest. And while Lane and Virginia have a tense, distant relationship, Virginia and Matilde bond quickly, and soon Virginia is covertly cleaning her sister’s house.

Then comes the cataclysm, and the controlled debris of life is unleashed. Charles reveals that he has fallen passionately in love with a beautiful, older (Portuguese-speaking) woman, Ana (Charin Alvarez) — a patient on whom he has performed a mastectomy. Lane’s world is upended, but so is everyone else’s as Charles heads off to the Yukon to find a yew tree that might help heal his beloved, and the women begin to bond in the most unexpected ways.

The performances here are sublime. Armour all but steals the show with her uncanny deadpan comic timing. Alvarez is the very essence of seductive allure and enigmatic self-possession. Egleston is all patrician hauteur until shaken out of her comfort zone. Da Cunha is the high-spirited young woman of experience and instinct who is called on to perform the most serious of jokes. And Douglass is the clueless male — a far better explorer than caretaker.

As I said, no description can quite capture Ruhl’s subtly offbeat but profound sense of both daily existence and the grand scheme of the universe — the mysteries, the contradictions and the unavoidable tragicomedy. For that you must pay a visit to ‘The Clean House.”