Not messing about

Mad Horse's beautiful Clean House
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 28, 2009

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SEEKING ORDER: Trying to Clean House.

The pale modernism of Lane's living room, plush but sterile, is being slowly strewn with stuff: barely bitten apples, playing cards, a bright yellow spice. "Love is messy," says Lane's Brazilian maid, and so, it seems, is any room — or any life — that lets love in. As dregs and spangles of experience accumulate, four women negotiate both the sorrow and the hilarity of their messes, in Sarah Ruhl's beautiful and agonizing The Clean House, directed by Lisa Muller-Jones for Mad Horse.

Just who should clean the home of type-A doctor Lane (Tootie Van Reenen) is a matter of some contention. She has, in the words of her housewife sister Virginia (Maureen Butler), "given up the privilege of cleaning her own house." Instead, Lane has hired Mathilde (Reba Short), a haughty young Brazilian who hates to clean, has recently lost her comedian parents, and spends all her time thinking up the perfect joke. Virginia, as it happens, finds great purpose in cleaning, but resentments between the sisters mean she can't let Lane catch her cleaning her house. So Virginia and Mathilde hatch a secret arrangement that is symbiotic for everybody. However, mess strikes again when Lane's surgeon husband Charles (an appealing Chris Horton) announces that he is leaving her for his newly found Argentinian soulmate, Ana (Michele Livermore Wigton), from whom he has recently removed a breast.

Set in "a Metaphysical Connecticut," the longings of The Clean House sometimes transcend normal rules of time, space, and nature. The play draws on elements of magical realism, a Latin American style that brightly and whimsically brings strange happenings into otherwise realistic settings, and Muller-Jones's staging of it is affecting: A shirt Charles tosses from Ana's balcony floats into Lane's living room, where she clutches and smells it. Mathilde's imagined parents (Wigton and Horton, bewitchingly) appear in red to laugh, kiss, and look upon their daughter. That yellow spice — thrown during a fight between Ana and Charles, Mathilde recounts — falls onto Lane's pale carpet with a narrative puff.

Max Jones's elegant cream-colored set is a remarkable canvas for the epic changes and contrasts among these women. As the radiant Ana becomes part of their lives, laughter and colors begin to pop against the pallor: red and green apples, a bright rainbow of a woven blanket.

But trauma is always close. The women and their relationships evolve over the course of such changes, and it is a pleasure to watch these actresses at work. Van Reenen and Butler together as sisters is a casting coup, and Lane and Virginia's early awkward restraint around each other moves intelligently through anger, candor, empathy, and even affection, as they loosen jaws and gazes. As Mathilde, Short begins the play with an almost stylized Latin imperiousness in her frame (sharply costumed by Christine Louise Marshall in bold handkerchief-cut black) and her intense, clipped cadences. The effect is striking, if at times a touch affected, but Short's most moving moments come as her hauteur melts and as, under the influence of Ana, Mathilde's natural joy and humor emerge. And to watch Wigton's warm, luminous Ana is a little like looking on a Buddha.

What Lane and Virginia learn from her, and from Mathilde, concerns not just the cleansing power of laughter, but also its close proximity to a sob. Likewise is Mad Horse's show both raucously funny and very hard on the tear ducts. But as the chaotic residue of everyone's emotions builds up on the stage, these actors also let us feel the glory of reveling in the rubble.

Megan Grumbling can be reached atmgrumbling@hotmail.com.

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