Its seams are showing.
Helen & Edgar, which is raconteur Edgar Oliver’s account of the gothic Southern childhood he spent with his sister and their mentally ill mother, starts off spectacularly well. For one thing, there’s Oliver’s voice, which is simultaneously cavernous and fey: he sounds like Basil Rathbone’s gay uncle. His descriptions are gorgeous: within the fatherless family’s tumbledown, ivy-burdened house, there’s a cockroach-infested kitchen, in which the table is “like a barge run aground in a swamp.” Oliver finds humour in his mother’s eccentricities: “Eventually, the gypsy witch cards convinced Mother to go on a banana-split diet.” And Oliver’s prose often rises to the level of poetry: evoking a child’s odd sense of time, he says of his sister Helen, who was one and a half years older, “She was part of that eternity into which I was born.”
Physically, the storyteller is as still as a lugubrious, barely animated scarecrow: when he uses the middle fingers of both hands to tuck his thinning hair behind his ears, the effect is of a grand gesture.
For a while, this combination of personal eccentricity and linguistic fecundity is enough. But, in Act 1, the narrative structure is weak and things go slack. Too often, rather than accumulation, we get repetition, variations on the theme of Mother’s nuttiness: she was paranoid, obsessive, depressive, anxious, and sometimes hysterical. All of this information is important but because nothing really changes in Edgar’s life—both he and Helen remain passively in Mother’s thrall and she mostly repeats her cycles—the story stalls.
Helen & Edgar started life as a series of short monologues for the storytelling project The Moth and, in Act 1, the play fails to transcend its origins: vignettes line up like boxcars, but the train isn’t going anywhere. The one exception is a passage in which two apparently disparate episodes come together around a resonant image of watermelons. For most of the first act, however, I was bored. And the cadence in Oliver’s musical voice is so unchanging that it started to lull me to sleep.
Then, at the end of the first act, Edgar and his sister learn French, a language their mother doesn’t speak, and the possibility of solidarity—and change—emerges. The playwright has made us wait too long for it, but, when it comes, this narrative progression is welcome, and Act 2 is full of rewards. I won’t give away any of the plot’s payoffs, but they are considerable—and moving.
Throughout, projections of paintings, drawings, and sketches created by Mother—her name was Louise Gibson Oliver—provide textural variety and relief. I would have enjoyed more time with these images, which sometimes feel like lesser cousins to the works of Vincent van Gogh; their presentation feels rushed, but they are a joy to look at. And, as Oliver says, “There is an innocence to Mother’s work that is truly a form of revelation.” Helen and Edgar isn’t perfect, but the same could be said of this creation.
HELEN & EDGAR By Edgar Oliver. Directed by Catherine Burns. Produced by George Dawes Green. Presented by The Cultch at the York Theatre on Thursday, September 29. Continues until October 8.