What a wonder is Chelsea Woolley.
Her likely divisive new play, Paint Me This House of Love, is a balancing act between truth and lies, past and present, trauma and memory. When we meet Cecilia, fresh off a breakup and incapable of finishing a sentence, it’s within the crumbling walls of her home. The place needs a good spruce, a fresh coat of paint. It needs love.
Enter Dad — Jules — who hasn’t seen Cecilia in nearly 25 years. He’s handy, he says, a high-end realtor with a knack for projects, so why doesn’t he help his daughter fix the place up?
It’s a compelling lede for a frustrating story, a tale of reconnection and abandonment with no real conclusion to speak of. As Jules and Cece paint, they excavate the remnants of their relationship: the letters the two wrote to each other when Cece was a child, and the context which kept Jules from forming a relationship with her. His excuses for his absence flounder, pulsing from believable to not in a matter of moments. When Cece finally pushes back against her father’s trail of lies, it’s explosive and raw, and sends a poor Scrabble set flying against Ken MacDonald’s subtly genius set, primed for paint job after paint job as the show’s run progresses.
Cece’s no saint either, though her father’s flightiness provides some possible background on her inability to relate to others. The particulars of her recently ended romantic relationship are muddy, as if she herself doesn’t quite understand them. He was German, and he liked Scrabble, and he loved her, and he’s gone, she tells us and un-tells us over the course of Paint Me This House of Love’s roughly two hours.
Jessica B. Hill and Jeremiah Sparks are a sublime daughter-father pairing. They’ve mastered Woolley’s tricky text and rhythm (you can almost hear the punctuation and pagination of the play in the actors’ mouths) — with a less capable acting team, the play would wear out its welcome quickly. Attending a play to watch actors not finish a sentence might sound daunting, maddening, even grating, but under Mike Payette’s as-usual skillful directorial hand, the duo soars, filling the crumbling house’s every corner with simultaneous warmth and fury.
Plus, the audience does get a break from all that fragmentation. As I said: Woolley knows what she’s doing.
That break comes in the form of Rhondi, Cece’s mother, played by a Tanja Jacobs in a fabulous, Dora-worthy performance. Rhondi is irreverent and crass, and on her fourth husband (whose bowel troubles are the butt of many of her punchlines).
But the wily Rhondi is aging, too, trapped in a body that can no longer shave its own legs. Her relationship with Cecilia is solid, if just a hair overbearing, and in one simple act of caregiving we see just how much Cece feels for her mother. Rhondi’s sharp tongue can be harmful as well as humorous — more than once does she knock Cece down with a quick insult — but she means well. Cece has to believe that, and we the audience do too. Jacobs captures Rhondi’s many complicated layers, milking the laughs and reveling in the drama: it’s a fine performance.
To watch Paint Me This House of Love feels to me like what it must have been like to see an early Hannah Moscovitch play. There are quirks to even out in Woolley’s style — her penchant for overlapping sentences might be just a smidge too strong in places — but the artistic voice there is powerful, and specific, and frighteningly skilled. The story of an adult daughter reconnecting with her father through a home reno might lend itself to cliché under a less confident hand, but the symbols of Cece’s world (Scrabble, and orange taffy, and stamps) are fiercely original and show great promise for Woolley as a playwright.
Paint Me This House of Love is a decisive ending to an overall kickass Tarragon season, one Payette and his team can be proud of. An electrifying Tarragon debut for Woolley.
Paint Me This House of Love runs at Tarragon until May 7. Tickets are available here.